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This is a story regarding the Great Knight's expedition to the distant nation of Rovaltinny (in an ancient Inamortan tongue which the Great Knights often use) or "Wings", as it is referred to in the native tongue. For more on the Great Knights, see The History of the Great Knights, and for a list of the characters and locations, see Eclipse of the Knights: Characters and Locations.

NOTE: Most of the character profiles connected to this story are likely to contain spoilers.

Chapter One - Crawling In The Night Edit

Chaos. Destruction. The grass stained red with blood. The statue shattered. He stood there, wielding a bloodied axe and shield, grinning at the devastation he had caused. In a futile attempt to escape, a fallen civilian attempted to crawl away. Steadily, he marched up to the civilian, axe reared to deliver the killing blow. But just as he was upon him, rather than use the blade of the axe, he smashed the base of the handle into his helpless victim, caving in the back of his skull. Blood trickled out as he used his axe handle to pummel the civilian's head into pulp. Soon, there was nothing. Nothing but a gruesome mess of blood, bone and brains.

Vince woke from his nightmare, sweat dripping from his forehead. Cautiously, he stared around the tent. All four of his fellow Great Knights lay asleep in their hastily assembled bunks, all unusually silent.

Creak. Vince fixed his gaze upon the shadows of the trees swaying in the moonlight on the thin, flaxen tent exterior. Two figures emerged, their footsteps as quiet as those of a hunter stalking its prey, and headed towards the entrance. He felt the temptation to leap out of his bunk to grab his sword and axe, but felt utterly paralysed. His heart began to pound as the figures engorged in size until they reached the tent’s entrance.

“Ah, can’t see in the dark. Is this the right tent?”. The face of a grizzled knight poked through and peered into the interior. After his subordinate confirmed his comment, the rather short knight stepped in, clutching a crested helmet under his left arm, and barked an order at the sleeping soldiers, “Wake up men! Your night watch begins in fifteen minutes.”

Awoken, Vince’s comrades stirred and groaned, before the knight took a lamp from his officer and marched around the tent, glaring at each of the men. Vince managed to lift himself out and began to stumble outside with his sandals to urinate in a jar. As he did so, he glanced at the radiant full moon, its brightness illuminating the ordered rows of tents. Beyond the stakes surrounding the camp lay a dense expanse of forest, crawling with bizarre creatures apparently native to the North. Hopefully the Wingidons actually have barracks for us thought Vince. The entire thousand-strong detachment was part of a Great Knight expedition to aid their distant allies, the winged denizens of the Eclipse Mountains and the nation of Rovaltinny or "Wings" in the North-West who named themselves the Wingidons. They were particularly strange due to the fact that they had wings - feathery wings akin to those of a bird - which enabled them to fly. Years ago, Great Knight explorers had promised to aid the Wingidons in the case of invasion. Vince smiled to himself as he envisioned the peculiarity of the Wingidons who were delighted by this promise, despite the distance between the two realms being hundreds of kilometres. "They probably won't need us" he muttered to himself.

Once Vince was fully prepared for his night watch, he joined his companions.

“Good morning Delphius”.

Delphius’ lanky form emerged from the dimly-lit tent, grasping a battered axe in one hand and an equally battered shield in his other.

“I hate night watch” he grumbled. His eyes were still streaked red and his voice grainy. “I bet you that Pepin the Short just wanted to punish us for fun. ” Delphius remarked as looked back at the diminutive Knight in his polished armour.

Vince replied “If we were being punished, we would end up like Grifo. As a matter of fact, I’m surprised Grifo hasn't been executed. Some Great Knight commanders would have just dashed his brains out personally after he disobeyed orders or spoke back to them. I know that at least our old general would have..."

The two fell silent as they passed the blood-soaked body of Grifo, who was leaning against the wheel he had been tied up to, unconscious. "Is this really needed?" Vince questioned himself.

After navigating their way through the near-identical passageways between the tents, Vince and Delphius arrived at the stakes surrounding the statue and several crops of gold.

"Greetings friends" someone whispered at them. It was Samson, holding his remarkably reflective axe in one hand and a lamp in the other.

"Hi Samson" They both responded in near unison. While both Delphius and Samson had been eager to test their prowess in war, only Samson saw night watch as fun. After all, wouldn't it be more challenging to fight the native creatures on their home territory in the dark. Regardless, Samson had always been prepared for battle and had memorised enough military manuals, both regular and ancient, to display and explain every single tactic three Great Knights could use against a variety of opponents, including the nefarious creatures they were on guard for.

"Now Samson, don't get too hopeful that we get attacked by a swarm of these...things. I think everyone else is practically..."

A horrific screech filled the night air, breaking the relative tranquillity of the camp. All three soldiers looked at each other: one smiling, one frustrated; and one concerned. They unsheathed their weapons. Vince felt the adrenaline pumping through his veins, focusing his eyes on the border between the dark forest and the camp. Glimpses of red began to appear in the forest. Vince gripped his weapons tighter.

Tentatively, a single cat-like reptile stepped out of the darkness. It was diminutive in size. Its glowing red eyes widened and protruded out of its face, while it cackled menacingly.

All of a sudden, a pack of Crawlers pounded out of the twisted woods. The scaled monstrosities leapt over the firm mud and patches of grass. Samson beamed. "Practice time!" he yelled, while Vince cried out "Incoming Crawlers!". The other Knights raised their shields. The rush of footsteps could be heard from behind as several other guards rushed to reinforce them.

Samson's glinting axe sped forwards and cleaved the lead Crawlers head off, which rolled off onto the ground. His next blow landed directly on another Crawler's skull, making a satisfying crunch as it hit. In the meantime, Vince and Delphius used their shields the shove back the incoming Crawlers who threw their entire body mass against them. Confidently, Vince stabbed his sword forwards and caught a writhing Crawler in the side of its neck, allowing a stream of blood to pour out and its body to collapse.

Delphius made a similar movement with his axe, shearing off a creature's leg before finishing it. Without warning, he and Samson then charged forwards, knocking over several Crawlers with their momentum and executing them as they were incapacitated. Two Knights to their right made a similar manoeuvre, stunning three Crawlers and using the slight point on the bottom of their shields to bludgeon and dislocate their necks. The furious war cries of the few were matched only by the screeches of their enemies. Pools of blood were splattered everywhere at the edge of the stakes as the cold steel and might of the Great Knights unleashed upon the Crawlers.

The combined night guards continued to crush the Crawlers, pushing forward as certain soldiers charged forward to prevent them from regrouping. Even though the Crawlers outnumbered the Knights by two to one, they stood no chance. A few remained limp on the ground, trodden on by the advancing metal-clad warriors.

Within a minute, the once thirty-strong pack of Crawlers was a mere three individuals that had the intelligence, and the nonchalance, to scamper back into the forest, dragging a few of the smallest casualties along with them, presumably for consumption.

"Cowards!" Samson cried jokingly at the fleeing Crawlers. He stared down at the numerous disfigured lumps of flesh and kicked one head away, before pulling out a clean cloth to wipe the blade of his axe with. Delphius spat on one of the corpses and made a rude gesture at it, proceeding to stamp its brains out. Vince’s heavy breathing ceased and he looked to the other Knights, several of whom had rushed out to defend the statue. Some were clutching their axes and swords, while a few longbowmen and crossbowmen advanced out of their positions to collect the few arrows and bolts they had fired.

Vince felt a slight sense of relief: that had been easy enough. But as he reflected on the encounter, a sudden dark chill crept up his spine. Nothing he reassured himself silently while scanning the forest. Only a single pair of glowing red eyes were visible from afar, staring unblinkingly for several seconds and them disappearing into the night. Just a Crawler he thought to himself again. Just a Crawler...

Chapter Two - Pack Mentality Edit

Vince yawned loudly as the sun rose from the horizon. His companions were all similarly tired and irritated, muttering sarcastic jokes about feeling dead inside. A few had taken to disassembling the dead Crawlers and throwing their mutilated remains at each other to save themselves from going insane with boredom. All were broadly arrayed around the statue, with only a few focusing on the forest they were all supposed to watch for.

Samson continued to switch between reading a history book of Cranium (Northern Inamorta), taking small sips of dilute ale from his water skin and polishing his shield, which he had laid out next to the statue. "Apparently, we're only a day's march away from Rovaltinny" he stated rather plainly. He knew that many of the Great Knights on this expedition were doubtful of their purpose: sending almost 2,700 Knights and 400 Auxiliary Soldiers deep into the North seemed impractical to face an entire invasion force by an unknown enemy. Regardless, no one truly despised the Wingidons, only their lack of a sophisticated language, in fact the Knight's considered "Wingidon" as an insult if said directly to them, and referred to them solely as Rovalians, especially since the Wingidons' cousins in the Eagle Mountains, known as the Theryn, were somewhat superior in their technology and closer to the Great Knights.

"Good morning again lads!" Pepin, their short-statured commander, arrived with a small grin. "Finally, the expedition is moving out again to link up with a Rovalian detachment at the borders of their kingdom." His announcement was met with a few quiet cheers and multiple grunts. "However, we haven't been able to contact them because..." Pepin faltered as he surveyed the soldiers' faces. Almost all of them seemed to have been drained of life. After a pause of several seconds, Pepin spoke up again, only at a quieter volume "...At least 3 scouting parties were attacked, apparently by a large pack of Crawlers."

Murmurs erupted throughout the Knights. How could 3 scouting parties, each consisting of 9 Great Knights and 5 Archers be overwhelmed by Crawlers? But the more perceptive realised that there must have been over 300 Crawlers to overwhelm that many soldiers, and with no information of the path ahead, there could be many more.

"Therefore, we're sending out a larger task force to sweep the path and enable communication with the Rovalians. A second group will remain in the surrounding forest and guard our retreat, but we won't be able to deconstruct the camp if we don't make contact with the Rovalians. Any questions?"

As Pepin answered the many questions that the Knights had, Vince turned to his comrades, grinning at them.

"Here's your chance to kill some more Crawlers. I definitely hope that Pepin takes our squadron." He mocked them sarcastically. He could see their eyes completely bloodshot and their ears barely comprehending his loud voice. Delphius rolled his eyes in response while Samson groaned. Neither of them were in any mood to slaughter more beasts, in spite of their usual attitude towards doing so.

"Maybe we should have got some sleep. This operation sounds more promising than night watch." Delphius complained. After a short pause, he whispered "If Pepin selects us, I'm going to be incredibly peeved, and may possibly split his skull - although I that seems to be what always happens to anyone who annoys me mildly in the end."

Both Vince and Samson nodded casually. Neither approved of Delphius' somewhat murderous tendencies, but they knew that Delphius would do no such thing - murder was reserved for those who Delphius truly hated.

"So then, who's ready for some more killing!" A voice boomed from behind. Hastini Rongsabin emerged, clutching a large and ornate axe in her hands and a taunting smile on her face. "Or are you all too tired from standing around at night?"

The mocking tone in her voice enraged Vince, but it was not for himself that he was concerned: it was Delphius. His obsession with brutality was something that Hastini shared and even approved of, but Vince could tell that she was even more sadistic - where Delphius would split someone's skull in half, Hastini would ram blunt points into her victims' knee caps to dislocate them, snap off several joints and then disembowel them - and loathed her for it.

"Tired? We're not tired at all!" Delphius exclaimed, just as Samson yawned rather prominently.

"Oh really?" She replied snidely "Prove it."

All of a sudden, Hastini's axe was arcing over her head towards Delphius. Delphius leaped out of the way just as the axe glinted the side of his helmet, leaving a visible gash in the side.

"A bit slow don't you think."

"Delphius, are you ok okay!" Vince rushed to his side, inspecting the dent. He glared up at Hastini, who was still grinning. "Why would you do that? You almost killed him!" He could feel his blood boil in his veins as he stood up to meet her at eye level.

"It's fine. He's alive." Hastini replied calmly. She then turned to Delphius' crouching form. "Well, you managed to survive, so I think you can stay alive when facing a mass of Crawlers."

Samson finally spoke. "That was completely unnecessary." he reprimanded her sternly. Hastini continued to sneer and turned away with complete confidence, ignoring Vince's insults and Samson's criticisms.

"No conscience or honour at all. I hope she dies and burns in hell." Vince whispered to Samson.

"Let's hope so, although from what I can tell, hell seems to be the ideal home for her." They looked back to Delphius, who had just stood back up again, slightly dazed. As he stumbled about, he almost knocked into Pepin, who was roughly a third shorter than Delphius.

"Vince, I need your squadron to move out and join the centre vanguard. There has to be at least 200 experienced fighters to crush all the Crawlers ahead." Before anyone could respond, Pepin smiled approvingly, handing Samson a file of papers and left in a hurry. Clearly frustrated, Delphius started swearing repeatedly, while Vince patted him on the back half-sympathetically.

"Well then, get Edlothang and brief the others and get them on the road in 45 minutes. Get them to have breakfast quickly." Vince spoke. Samson nodded and glanced at the readjusted sundial behind him, turning to leave as he did so.

***

After eating hurriedly, Vince's squadron assembled at the edge of the camp, along with several other veteran warriors grouped in their respective divisions. Vince ambled to the front of his soldiers, appearing slightly reinvigorated after drinking several cups of boiled tea.

A bubbly voice sprang out from almost nowhere, "Hi Vince, seems like we really are the best of the best - we get to be thrown straight into hostile territory with full armour in a forest!" Vince pivoted around to see Edlothang, potentially the most cheery soldier he had every met, looking absolutely delighted with the prospect of a dangerous mission, her brilliant white teeth almost shining in the morning sunlight. "A bit like Samson, but less philosophical and almost never tired. That's why they're both lieutenants." Vince contemplated.

"Yes, it seems we are. I'm not so keen on fighting against an enemy which we have no intel on." he replied with slightly less enthusiasm. Not discouraged, Edlothang shrugged, maintaining her friendly smile "Maybe, but it feels good to be helping those Rovalians, as peculiar as they are."

Intrigued by Edlothang's inextinguishable morale, Vince nodded in response "Fair enough. Any way, I presume that everyone knows the plan from Samson's papers, and that you and Samson are equipped with the signalling horns?"

"Yes, everyone knows the plan, and all the signallers have been assigned. Actually, I think you should probably address the squadron now." She performed a short salute to Vince before returning to her position within the squadron.

As he addressed them, he could not help but notice that almost all of them were eager to fight (with a few exceptions, notably Samson and Delphius, who were simply tired), murderous smiles etched onto their faces. The best of the best Vince repeated Edlothang's words to himself silently with pride, he was after all commanding young, yet experienced, knights who he had fought together with in campaigns from the frigid Ice Hills to the dense forests of the Havik Kingdom, and achieved amazing success.

His silent reflection was rudely interrupted by Hastini, who swaggered arrogantly past with her axe trailing behind her, knocking Vince forward with a shoulder barge. He turned around scowling as the amused Hastini continued to advance, completely ignoring him. Why on earth does Delphius still consider her a friend?

"Well, having a sadist in your ranks does strike fear into the hearts of your enemies, making them more cautious and, when their line begins to break, panicky and extraordinarily fun to pursue with cavalry." Vince looked to his other side at the tall, metal-clad, beaming young woman standing in front of her own squadron.

"Parean, was I... was I just thinking out loud?" He questioned, slightly puzzled at her comment.

"No, but it was rather obvious from your expression that it was something to do with Hastini's presence." Parean responded without hesitation. Vince still appeared confused, his eyes having wandered towards the sky as he pondered on his previous expression. "If it's any comfort, in a scenario where we are all besieged and run out of supplies, Hastini will definitely be our first victim of cannibalisation." She added rather enthusiastically, raising an amused smile from Vince.

"How would we kill her though? There has to be some element of disembowelment for ironic purposes."

"Of course there does, but wouldn't it be more fun to also destroy her joints with brute force and tear off her nails." They both grimaced in agreement. Vince knew that Parean was not a sadist in any way, but occasionally they would both indulge in their own fantasy of torturing Hastini to death.

"Vince, Parean, get up here quickly!" another Great Knight captain bellowed from the command tent. The two hurried in that direction to gather around a table with several of the most senior Great Knights planning their attack strategy. Pepin stood in the middle of the huddle, holding a few banner figures to signify the various squadrons, with 40 soldiers each. 5 were congregated at the centre of the road, while a further 3 were positioned on each side of the road.

He pushed the flanking groups up first. "We need to clear the forest of potential ambushers before our main group advances on the road. We are expecting resistance, so each group has their own signallers following this system: one horn for spotting the enemy, two for engaging them, three if reinforcements may be required if more are attackers are suspected, and finally, four if your group is being overrun." Most of the captains nodded at this, whereas Vince and Parean took some more time figuring out the locations.

"Do we have any exact information on the numbers or locations of these creatures?" Vince inquired "There could be thousands of them lurking amongst these forests just waiting to annihilate our divided groups piecemeal. Somehow, these Crawlers are acting...intelligent. Within the past few days, most of the Crawlers we've faced were bigger, faster and attacked small groups of guards with overwhelming numbers, picking us off slowly. We can't just send in.."

"And what would you suggest we do then?" the irritated voice of a woman cut off Vince's complaint. "Send in more scout groups? Even you said that these Crawlers were superior and could pick off small groups of soldiers, and you want to send in more scouts to be butchered without any benefit." she derided him. "I thought you were the sort of captain who threw his troops into a massive assault to ensure they fought together, not separated."

Flustered, Vince opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it and hung his head as a wave of shame overtook him. "Fair enough Lieutenant General Tangeldis, you're right." He silently berated himself for his stupidity, while Tangeldis continued staring at him with what could be interpreted as contempt. Vince attempted to avoid her piercing eyes and casually glanced around the table. All the other captains were showing some sign of discomfort.

Pepin continued "Anyway, each group should be able to assign three backup horn signallers and equip them accordingly. The first groups will march out in 15 minutes and the centre group within 20 minutes. Any questions?"

One of the Great Knight captains standing next to Vince spoke up, pointing at a point on the map "What about the turn in the road there? If the Crawlers are intelligent as you say they are, then surely they would attack us where the vegetation is most dense and visibility is low. After all, that would be a good spot to engage us and we wouldn't know how many Crawlers were committing to the attack. We might want to be careful in reinforcing our groups until we have a better idea about the size of their forces. They could attack one group on the left to lure away defenders, then send in the rest of the forces to attack the group on the right after they have sent reinforcements."

"Captain Nircurus, all you are suggesting is that we should be careful separating and reinforcing our groups." Tangeldis commented with a haughty expression, clearly feeling the need to shut him down. Nircurus shook his head, smiling mischievously "Do you remember your military history Tangeldis, for example, in the Lostathon Campaign?"

Tangeldis' skin flushed red, but her expression remained as staunch as previously. The more experienced captains in the tent began smiling knowingly. "No? Let me remind you. Your sister - and she still is related to you , no matter how much you hate each other - led around 3,000 Great Knights into battle. They were facing 1,500 soldiers; it should have been an easy victory. But instead: you came along; told them to split up; failed to send out scouts; marched half of the groups against the enemy; and then you just left. What happened to those 3,000 Great Knights? I know you don't care about your sister, but what about them?"

With deliberate action, he paused, seemingly waiting for an answer to his rhetorical question. All attention was focused on Tangeldis, who remained silent.

"Destruction in detail. All of those Knights were killed." Nircurus finished.

Tangeldis finally retorted "What about the Woid attack on the Drookies? I earned the Great Knights another vassal kingdom by crushing those nomads. What about the Second Battle of Firnost? I saved you from facing a huge army of spearmen when all you had was heavy cavalry and a few Knights. What about..."

"Yes, I think that's enough. We have timings to follow." Pepin yelled. "We can boast or reminisce or insult each other later, not now."

***

"Stay close to Nircurus' squadron!" Vince bellowed at his troops. The road was little more than a mud track, battered by the wet and frigid weather of the North West. Even though they were marching in broad daylight, the towering trees along the side of the path cast looming shadows on the advancing Great Knight column. All of them were surveying their surroundings, anticipating the orbs of red hidden in the forest and the scramble of vegetation being disrupted.

Just the column turned the dreaded bend and the borders of the forest and road became glaringly obvious, a loud horn blasted from deep within the forest on their left. This was followed by two blasts. "Our left flank has engaged." Captain Nircurus addressed the column calmly and rather reluctantly. His squadron was in front of Vince's and Parean's. "We should probably prepare one group to..."

Without warning, a chorus of loud horns exploded on their left. Four horns. The entire column stopped moving as they processed the sudden rush of signals. It was clear that the 120 soldiers in the forest were being utterly overrun.

Then, another volley of horns came from the right. Now the right flank was being overrun as well. "They've swarmed us on both sides." Parean whispered to Vince

"And now they have encircled us! Just as suspected." Nircurus exclaimed.

A writhing mass of the creatures spilled onto the road both ahead and behind them, intent on killing. A few Great Knights were scrambling through the forest, desperately trying to escape the horde that was devouring them so quickly.

Vince glanced at the other captains, then at Samson, Edlothang and Delphius. They all nodded in agreement.

"Defensive positions!"

Chapter Three - Flying Statues Edit

Pepin was running. Running through a spider's web of tree branches and brambles, chased by semi-intelligent monsters intent on eating him. "If this is how father died, I can now feel his pain." He muttered to himself as he sprinted through the forest, stumbling and hacking his way through. The left flank had been obliterated in the blink of an eye and now 80 Great Knights were fleeing to the central group. The same situation was with that of the right flank he presumed, as distant signals could be heard. A single, much louder horn blast sounded - the centre had spotted the enemy.

Suddenly, Pepin's foot caught on a tree root, tripping him up and causing him to lurch forwards. He cursed as he collapsed to the ground, scraping the skin off his hands and dropping his sword. Attempting to recover, he grabbed his sword and sheathed, instead taking out one of his several throwing axes and hacking a path to the road.

Then, a few ravenous screams came from behind him. Apprehensive, Pepin turned around, seeing one of the Great Knights behind him being swarmed and clawed to death. Instinctively, Pepin hurled the axe in his hand at the Crawlers, scattering them as it bounced on the uneven forest floor and catching two in the limbs. He threw another axe as the Crawlers retreated, this time aiming higher and detaching multiple branches, which fell and trapped four Crawlers underneath. Pepin rushed to slice all of them in a single stroke, before shifting his attention to the fallen Great Knight beside him. His mouth hung agape as he saw the knight's head, battered beyond recognition and detached from the body. Pepin hurriedly spoke a short prayer, looking up immediately as he completed it.

Almost instantly, his arm flicked up, cracking the jaw of a Crawler that had leapt at him to try and ambush him. As he wrenched his axe free, another pack of Crawlers advanced, slipping through the maze of twigs and thorns with ease. Not wasting a second, Pepin dashed to the path he had created previously, eager to reach his fellow soldiers.

Wielding his throwing axe, he rushed to the edge of the forest, breaking through in an instant. His arrival was met with a few sighs of relief, but there was no mistaking the fear that gripped almost every one of them. Pepin twisted his head round to see a thousand Crawlers pour onto the road. "Here we go" he though.

"Shield wall, ring formation!" he commanded in the most confident voice he could muster. Tapping into their years of professional training, the knights began to arrange their formation. Heart thumping, Pepin sprinted to the centre, axes in hand and ready to shatter the enemy. Surrounding him were the survivors of his own squadron, all armed similarly with throwing axes designed to shatter enemy cohesion by destroying their shields, while a few heavy axe soldiers were positioned there, ready to reinforce if necessary. The next ring consisted of Tangeldis and her squadron from the right flank, which had now also withdrawn to the centre, clutching long thrusting spears that reached over the shoulder of the outer ring - consisting of Knights equipped with axes and swords. All of them clamped down in their formation, creating a uniform ring of steel that all of its components hoped would be impenetrable.

Emboldened by their successful encirclement, the Crawlers were now assembling, prowling around the defensive circle, all of them waiting for a signal to attack. Their jagged teeth were clearly visible in their twisted smiles, displaying stains of blood, probably made by tearing the flesh from an unfortunate knight.

Purrs and other bizarre sounds began uttering from their diaphragms, while their tails began waving eerily in complete unison. Standing in the centre of his formation, Pepin could detect the growing concentration of sweat from his troops. Deep breaths.

Meanwhile, Vince was standing shoulder to shoulder with Delphius and Samson, shields abut and raised, clenching his sweaty palm on the handle of his arming sword. His heart pounding felt like a stampede of enraged horses, or maybe the famed mass charge of the Great Knights - only this time, it was they who were the victims of the charge. "Ironic" concluded Vince bitterly.

Instantly, the ear-splitting shrieks of the Crawlers broke Vince's train of thought. They were charging. He braced himself for the incoming smash of the rabid beasts hurling their jagged, scaled bodies against his shield as the rumbling of their charge intensified.

"Squadron, now!" Pepin screamed in an agitated voice. In a split second, Pepin's squadron hurled their axes in several directions, sending Crawlers flying as the axes rebounded and crashed into them and splintered their arrowhead formations with which there were moving in. Only a few dispersed creatures even reached the shield wall, where the spears began stabbing out and impaling several more Crawlers.

Yet it was clear that the thousand or so Crawlers were not going to give up: they had surrounded the best of the Great Knight expedition; now would be the time to annihilate once and for all, and they had the combined intelligence to recognise this. With a signal from the presumed leaders of the packs, the encirclement tightened and now a fresh wave of prepared to attack.

Synchronous with an unusual hiss, a whole tsunami of charcoal-inflected appendages, claws and teeth came crashing towards the formation again, only this time, they avoided the axe volley that greeted them to their best ability, suffering far fewer casualties than before. They've learnt to dodge? Pepin exclaimed within his own mind.

All the same, this was not the thought that was streaming through Vince's, or indeed anyone else in the outer ring's mind. Instead, it was a mixture of profanities directed at the Crawlers and some more civilised thoughts of home. Some were even contemplating life itself.

In a single smash, the weight of over a thousand beings hammered against the steel plates that were the only thing keeping the terrified soldiers breathing - if one section collapsed, the entire formation was likely doomed. Vince barged his shield out in tandem with Samson and Delphius, intending to knock them back, nevertheless, to no avail.

Even when compressing the handle of his shield so tightly his hands were trembling, Vince sensed the sudden release of pressure. The Crawlers were retreating; no, they were coming back!

"Cycle charging" Vince heard Nircurus announce. Having had only a very brief respite, the shield wall shook again as the impact of the charge hit. Then, the line ruptured.

A terrified Knight had stabbed out his axe, only for his shield to be dragged out, taking him with it. Crawlers burst into their ranks and panic immediately caught them. Pepin swore. Voice wavering, he yelled "Hastini, get the axe warriors to seal the breach!". Hastini, hidden within the centre of the formation, emerged with a massive grin, shoving a few spearmen aside as her soldiers, around 20 in total, all with large two-handed axes. As soon as a Crawler leapt upon her, she landed a vicious kick to the underbelly, before stamping on its neck and severing its spine. Arranged in a crescent formation, half of the axe warriors were spinning their blade to catch the approaching, unarmoured Crawlers in any position possible, while the other half was dispersed between them, ensuring that their comrades were defended. Their weapons continually sliced through the flesh of the Crawlers easily, shattering bone if used efficienly.

Concurrent to Hastini's display of axe-fighting skills, chaos had erupted in the outer ring, which was no longer a formation, but a few isolated groups of knights being destroyed in detail, much to the dismay of Nircurus. Vince, Samson, Delphius and Edlothang were all trapped in the same pocket, not far from Tangeldis' spear troops, who were systematically stabbing out to kill as many Crawlers as possible. Vince's squadron had no such advantage of reach or cohesion: they were surrounded in a circle formation of their own.

Thirty or so Great Knights under Vince were sporadically striking their weapons out, axes rapidly decapitating their opponents with surprising precision. They were almost all afraid, but now was not the time to show it. Vince kept his head low, peering above his shield to witness a single Crawler rearing up on its hind leg to somersault in the air and lash at his face. Without hesitation, Vince shoved the Crawler onto its back just as it left the floor, bringing his shield crashing down on the creature's stomach, spilling a pool of blood onto the ground.

To his right, Samson used an upwards strike with his axe to bat away another Crawlers performing a near identical move. Despite this, where one Crawler fell, two more would take its place. A breakthrough would be impossible. Depressed by this gradual realisation, Delphius mumbled satirically "Well, at least we died somewhere close to our objective. It's a shame we won't achieve our perfect record of succeeding in every campaign that we've fought in."

"O come on Delphius, we might as well try to kill as many of them as possible and lessen the burden of those Rovalians!" Edlothang chided him in a characteristically cheerful voice, while her arming sword slit the neck of a Crawler. Unmoved by Edlothang's comment, Delphius rolled his eyes and continued striking out at the increasing number of Crawlers, which despite Hastini's best efforts, were still coming in by the hundreds.

Abruptly, a single horn blasted from around the corner of the road. Vince stared in that direction, as did most of his squad. A hoarse voiced exclaimed an order: "Charge!" Even the Crawlers were now looking back, their beastly faces conveying some sense of fear. "Metal" Vince observed as the first beings emerged from behind the dense forest.

"Reinforcements have arrived!" Edlothang screamed with delight. Parean, trapped in her own pocket, relayed the message to the main body where Tangeldis and Pepin were held. With renewed vigour, the Great Knights began hewing down the Crawlers, some of whom were beginning to falter. The reinforcing knights charged into the rear of the Crawler mass, scattering them first with a few throwing axes and utterly shattering them as they cut down the largest of the Crawlers. Once more, the Great Knights were charged with wrath and butchering the creatures that had dared to ambush them.

Vince's squadron broke out of their formation, descending on the fleeing Crawlers and chasing them back into the forest, where they halted their pursuit.

"Yes! Victorious once more!" Samson punched the air and high-fived a cheery Edlothang. Meanwhile, a relieved Delphius began kicking the corpses of the Crawlers around again, laughing at their mangled bodies and the partial look of fear in their dead eyes. Nircurus and Parean cantered towards Vince, broad smiles embedded on them.

"Now, that is why we keep reserves around to operate an excellent hammer and anvil operation." Parean spoke.

"I have to admit though, I would rather have been the hammer than the anvil, especially since in our case, the anvil didn't know that it was an anvil." Nircurus grimaced.

***

"All squadrons have been registered and losses calculated - we have 56 dead and 23 wounded sir. Captain Rethdurk is also returning to the camp with his reinforcements." Tangeldis informed Pepin. "Rethdurk probably needs some sort of recognition when we return for saving us" Pepin presumed. "Also, I need at least three relatively intact squadrons to move forward to the last objective. There we were supposed to rendezvous with a Rovalian patrol. Hopefully, they might still be there."

Tangeldis rapidly assessed the numbers of each of the squads from her sheet. "It would appear that Nircurus, Parean and Vince still have squads that are almost at full strength. I recommend that they should be sent further." Pepin agreed without hesitation.

***

"Are we still marching out after being ambushed by a thousand Crawlers?" Delphius moaned

Calmly, Pepin answered his rhetorical question "Yes, we still need to meet up with the Rovalians, who should be safe from any Crawler attacks." They were all trudging along the path, which had further disintegrated into a solid river of dirt, complete with jagged rocks penetrating from the ground. Pepin was marching with Vince's squad at the front.

"Wait, what is that?" Delphius questioned again as he pointed at a puddle only a few metres ahead, only this time, his tone was considerably more serious and inquisitive.

Samson shot him an amused look "It's a puddle, a pool of water that has accumulated after rainfall in a depression on an impermeable surface! Look, I might as well just jump into it and... " Samson leaped forward "See, it's one of those mini-lakes that Beriaur would hang you for if y-AARRGGHH!"

Samson jumped backwards, knocking into Delphius and Pepin and pushing them onto the floor. His expression contorted with anguish, he cradled his foot in his arms.

Curiously, Vince crouched down peered at the pool from its side, inspecting the harmless-looking liquid. "Hang on, it's slightly... green? No, it's very green from this angle."

"Samson's sabaton has been partially dissolved or something." Edlothang commented. "What is that substance?"

Both Parean and Nircurus had sprinted over to investigate. "Is that poison?" Nircurus puzzled

Parean answered "Possibly, I've heard accounts of corrosive poisons which have a similar shade to this, only that the last records of those were from approximately..."

"140 years ago, only a few years after the Serpentine were annihilated. I should have known better than to step in a puddle." Samson finished Parean's sentence, who grinned in response.

"Ah yes, some Serpentine were able to discharge vast amounts of this poison which would inflict severe damage on those who came into contact with it and gradually drain a person's health to the point of death if left untreated. We must return to the camp to ensure that Samson's wounds have not been infiltrated by the poison, or he will soon be dead. My squadron will escort him back sir. We have a stretcher"

Without a nod of approval from Pepin, Nircurus and his lieutenants Galderian and Yaleris rapidly assembled a stretcher and lifted Samson's moderately heavy body onto it, proceeding to transport him back down the road as Samson complained that a stretcher was completely unnecessary.

The Great Knights continued to advance, deliberately avoiding the pools of poison that littered the road. Pepin almost tripped up on a spindly rock protruding out of the ground.

"Why are there suddenly so many stones..." Vince's question trailed off as he began to comprehend what he was seeing. Trapped in the tree in front of him was a statue. Not a large statue from which miners would gather mana, this was life size. The face was perfectly preserved, emanating with pain and fear, the mouth screaming silently and the eyes widened to a near disproportionate size, clearly in shock, and a hand was raised slightly below eye level, as if it was trying to defend itself against something.

The expansive wings on its back gave away that this was somewhat representation of a Rovalian, complete with the texture of feathers emerging. Hanging from one of the branches was a longbow, and on the statue itself was a mounted quiver, complete with several arrows.

Nervously, Parean began analysing the statue "That is not right. The Rovalians would not, could not carve anything like that. Much less would they carve a member of their own race apparently in pain, stuck in a tree. Is that bow still wooden? The quiver isn't made of stone?"

Keeping this information in mind, Pepin continued surveying the road, confusion continuing to build up in his mind as it registered an increasing number of life-like statues strewn carelessly everywhere. Many had shattered on the ground, seemingly having fallen from the sky. Possibly there was some pattern, 10 of the Statues were spread in a crescent formation around their current position, almost as if they were preparing to attack them.

Vince swallowed hard as his conclusion came to mind. "Is this...mass petrification?"

Chapter Four - Gates of Stone Edit

The camp was in a frenzy of movement. Amid the rapid deconstruction of tents, soldiers were discussing what had been seen only a few hours ago. Whispers of the words petrification, poison and Serpentine spread across the camp like wildfire. Those who knew their history well could recall that these were characteristics of the Serpentine, a race that had caused much destruction across Inamorta and had been completely wiped out by the Great Knights more than a hundred years ago. Now it appeared they had returned.

"The last recorded Serpentine were killed by Darvink Havik and his fleet when they attempted to flee back to the Maxilla Peninsula. That was one of the fundamental points in the split between him and Jygarn Invincibilis - Darvink demanded more recognition for his action."

A cool headed Parean was explaining the history of the Great Knights to Delphius and several of his lower ranking friends in her squadron, most of whom were less experienced than him, in one of their barrack tents

"So, does that mean that Darvink was just jealous of Jygarn's position as leader of the Great Knights, just because he was the one who actually finished off the Serpentine?" One of them inquired in an inquisitive and low-pitched tone.

"It was more...justified than that Lobaten. One of the main reasons for Darvink's frustration was that Belfaenar had died before he could return with the news that all of the Serpentine had been exterminated and hence Belfaenar Rochir never officially recognised it, making Jygarn joint leader with Saelara Rochir." The knight named Lobaten nodded in comprehension, as did most of the others.

"But are there still Serpentine alive and therefore Darvink didn't kill all of them?" Another question cropped up, this time from a smaller knight called Uldarlas, who was just as curious as her comrade Lobaten.

Unwilling to spread fear among the more inexperienced of the Great Knights, Parean replied "There is no confirmation that the petrified Wingidons were killed by Serpentine exactly, after all there are instances of mages powerful enough to transform themselves or potentially other beings into stone. I simply suggest that you are vigilant, but not paranoid, of any suspicious movements that you observe in the forest and do not travel around alone or in small groups, unless you are part of a reconnaissance party."

Just as Lobaten had done, Uldarlas gave a respectful nod to Parean, but she her face was still somewhat disappointed, almost as if she was looking forward to a flamboyantly speculative answer. Parean, perceptive as ever, knew not to feed her any false information or else risk a massive breakdown in morale among the younger Great Knights on the expedition.

"I think that's enough talk about snake people for one day." Delphius finally exclaimed, yet again fatigued after withstanding Parean's complicated - at least to him - droning on about Serpentine and rudimentary politics. The only thing Delphius enjoyed about politics was that it gave him an excuse to kill, for "political reasons" or maybe assassinating people - he found that the most satisfactory.

"Well, unfortunately 'snake people' are a crucial part of the history of the Great Knights. In fact, they can also withstand significant amounts of damage, but can still feel pain, therefore you could conceivably torture them for longer without worrying significantly about how to maximise torture efficiency." Parean chuckled in response, raising a slight smile from Delphius.

At that point, Galderian, Nircurus' most trusted lieutenant, poked his head through the tent, leading to several of the lower ranking Knights to immediately sit up, much to the amusement of Galderian, Parean and Delphius.

"Don't worry soldiers, you only need to be at the shun if I'm in the position of a cavalry officer, otherwise my rank isn't high enough for that to be necessary." Galderian chuckled, knowing that his rank had fluctuated so frequently that no one actually bothered to address him by it. Witnessing most of the Knights return to their slumped posture, he continued. "General Pepin requests your presence for the final forward operation."

Parean and the rest of her squadron, including Lobaten and Uldarlas, picked up their equipment, all with the sole exception of Delphius. "Not another mission, I've only slept for another three hours between this and the last!" he retorted in outrage.

Galderian rolled his eyes and began ranting instantaneously "Do you think that I wanted to take part in this either? Do you think I wanted to walk for the entirety of this campaign? Using horses for the sole purpose of transporting goods is ridiculously frustrating when mounted scouts could do so much better. Of course not an entire cavalry division, but at least two cavalry squadrons, one for Nircurus and one for me. And yet the Great Council decides to say 'no cavalry whatsoever'. I don't understand why Yaleris likes to dismount before fighting, cavalry used correctly is utterly devastating to any enemy. With the many knights we have at our disposal, we could even destroy units of spearmen! Cavalry is simply superb and this expedition was so poorly funded by the Council that I hate myself for even coming."

"Are you finished?" Delphius sneered. Lectures on "tactics" and "strategy" were something he usually switched off for, even when delivered by Samson - he was only interested when killing was mentioned.

"When commanded correctly, cavalry is the best." Galderian responded coldly, glowering at Delphius' clear lack of interest. "Remember Delphius, fighting isn't all about charging straight into the enemy, and definitely not charging into a pike or spear formation" He clasped his hand on Delphius shoulder. "It's good to enjoy warfare for the thrill of killing, but only if you treat your fellow living beings with some sort of respect rather than mutilating them like a certain Hastini does."

"Also, I saw you during the Lostathon Campaign. The only reason you survived that suicidal charge of yours and the reason for your demotion was because of my cavalry. Running into a lot of spiky objects headfirst is going to get you killed." Now Galderian was smirking, amused at Delphius' sudden change in confidence as his jeering smile vanished.

"So, as I was saying, Pepin requests your presence."

***

Once again, a few squadrons were in the assembly area, becoming the vanguard for the travelling column of Great Knights. Delphius appeared more scornful than usual, undoubtedly contemplating how Galderian's belittlement of him was justified, seeing as Delphius had accidentally killed half a squadron with that decision and was never given another position of command. If only the Great Knights actually recognised brutality as a good asset and promoted the ones with the best torture methods - Hastini would be commander-in-chief then. But they'll never understand how fun it is. Never.

Seeing Delphius staring blankly at the ground until his face began twisting into a sadistic smile, Vince tapped him on the shoulder to wake him from his trance-like state.

"Hey, Delphius, wake up. You were asleep an hour ago according to Parean." Vince gave a reassuring grin to Delphius.

"After all these years of fighting, how have we not become used to fatigue?" Delphius articulated his rhetorical question.

"We probably experience ridiculous amounts of sleep deprivation because Pepin knows that we can actually accomplish something, but we've had enough practice to... I don't know, not die of it?" They both started to jest at this notion, but Delphius had catalogued that thought in his mind: if only brutality was rewarded.

Once more, Delphius' train of thought was interrupted, this time by Pepin, who was now addressing Vince's squadron. "Greetings again Vince. It seems that Samson will still remain inactive for around a day, but his wounds aren't serious in any way, they only seared off part of his skin." Pepin informed Vince, who subsequently replied "Yes sir."

At a single horn signal, the vanguard marched out, while numerous carts and the main body of Great Knights trailed behind them. Along the road, several squadrons were strategically placed in order to spot any Crawler movements, while remaining sufficiently close to each other to retreat rapidly to the encampment and request reinforcements; this was a lesson Pepin had learnt from the ambush a few hours ago and he was not intending to lose more of his best troops.

***

The moist afternoon air of the north was beginning to result in small patches of mist materialising along the rugged road. The vanguard once again passed through their checkpoint at the petrified Wingidons, where the furthest out squadron commanded by Captain Rivinle.

"Ah, on time as usual general." Rivinle taunted Pepin in his typically arrogant voice, tapping his foot impatiently as he looked at the makeshift sundial his soldiers had stuck in the ground. "I believe that's fifteen minutes late. The Council won't be happy to hear..."

"Captain Rivinle, do you truly believe that the Council even care about this expedition if they send so few troops, most of whom are inadequately equipped, to their allies in a distant kingdom? A fifteen minute delay is no reason to decry your general when the given time of arrival was a rough estimate" Pepin uttered sternly “Don’t think that being an experimental Juggernaut raises your position above a general.”

“Oh General, please do forgive me for being superior to you in every way but rank.” Rivinle leered at Pepin sarcastically, simply waiting for Pepin to unleash his anger, another point which Rivinle could then threaten with reporting. His loyalty to the Great Knights was unswerving, making him the perfect informat on the progress of the mission for the council. The merciless experimental Juggernaut programme had made sure of it.

Ignoring Rivinle’s blatant insubordination, Pepin posed another question, this time actually expecting a comprehensive answer, “Have there been any signs of Crawlers movement?”

“Of course not! We’ve been waiting for several hours doing nothing productive. Now hurry up the column. This is getting ridiculous.” Rivinle’s discontent at what he deemed as a useless position was very pronounced.

“Good” came Pepin's terse reply. “Continue advancing!” he bellowed to the rest of the vanguard.

***

The dense fog intensified as the vanguard plodded on through the stone-ridden mud track that marked the first roads into Rovaltinny. Bows and arrows were scattered everywhere, found near the remnants of Wingidons who had presumably been petrified and shattered as they dropped to the ground. Strangely enough, there were no pools of poison this time, but instead lumps of flesh which emitted a pungent odour and had almost the same sort of chemical oozing out. The road itself, aside from intrusions of rock, appeared to have multiple speed bumps embedded in the mud, crisscrossing the entire path, at least within the radius that was visible to them.

“Do the Wingidons even know how to build roads? How hard is it for a society that lives in the mountains to gather stone and pave at least part of a road on their own territory?” One captain commented as she almost tripped over a bump in the ground.

Parean, being the fountain of all knowledge, answered her “They don't use their roads for anything other than cargo and visitors, but from what the records of the Great Knight expedition show, they were at least maintained better than this.”

"Really? Have they just not bothered to look after their roads and decided to be lazy and just fly around everywhere without realising that some people can't fly!" the captain quipped.

Determined to clarify any misinterpretation, Parean continued "Then again Vectiam, the Wingidons don't have much of a quarrying industry either. The statues they create aren't the best and they're not known for their strength, so transportation of stone would be more difficult and expensive, and frankly roads would be a worthless investment in their trade, and sector which the Rovalians will be unable to expand effectively given their isolated position and lack of nearby friendly civilisations."

"Fair enough, but the baggage train is still suffering from a few problems." Vectiam declared, gesturing at the uneven terrain, with multiple potholes that the wheels of their supply wagons could entrap themselves in.

"Agreed. This road does not deserve to be called a road. Plus, this weather isn't helping transportation one bit." Another captain came up from behind Vectiam, shaking her head as she observed the irregular mounds of earth scattered across everywhere - yet another obstacle to a fully-loaded wagon.

"Captain Yunathrad, I thought you were supposed to be escorting the rear of the convoy?" Vectiam queried, confused by her sudden, though welcome, intrusion.

"Well it seems that one of the wagons somehow lost broke its wheel and only my lieutenants can actually repair them, while the rest of my squadron is absolutely clueless and I couldn't actually trust them with delivering a message to Pepin that the rear is delayed." Yunathrad explained with a hint of frustration at the ineptness of her own soldiers, who were far from being experienced, "They're just ridiculously incompetent, they'd probably get lost in the fighting and go the other direction. I'd laugh at them all day if I wasn't the captain responsible for them. It's rather depressing." she sighed.

All three of them grimaced, reminiscing about the times that they were all training to be soldiers, when ridiculously strict standards of disciple were expected of them. "The good old days, when we were supposed to be able to fight properly before we were sent into combat." Vectiam snickered.

"Agreed, if only the Council cared about their distant allies slightly more." Parean beamed.

Yunathrad returned "Well, that's the Council for you. Any way, I should probably inform Pepin that..."

"Err, does anyone feel something moving beneath the ground? I can definitely feel some sort of vibration underneath my feet." Vectiam's tentative comment broke the air's light-heartedness.

"Movement? Are you sure?" Yunathrad asked in response, put on edge by her unexpected question.

Parean remained collected in her composure "Vectiam, I advise you step away from wherever you're standing, because you definitely do not want to be collapsed into some variety of pit."

Discreetly, Vectiam stepped off the spot on one of the mounds she had previously been standing on, staring at the earth as though anticipating something popping out onto the surface. "Hmm, that's unusual..."

***

In the meantime, Vince, Delphius, Nircurus, Galderian and Yaleris were all trudging through the all-enveloping fog, enduring Rivinle's incessant and spiteful fuming directed at Pepin, who was equally trying to survive Rivinle's unending stream of criticism.

"...Sending your best troops into an isolated corner away from available reinforcements? What sort of general does that? I'll tell you: a terrible general, who is utterly incompetent in command and cannot command his soldiers properly. Honestly, I should be in charge right now, not you. I would make a much superior general and actually be capable of genuine tactical manoeuvres which don't kill everyone. What idiot messes up so badly that he has to rely on one of his subordinate captains taking the initiative to save him? You clearly don't deserve..."

Intent on distracting himself, Delphius whispered to Galderian "Okay, I know I may have insulted you about talking about strategy too much Galderian, but Rivinle is such a... such a..."

"An egoistic, haughty, supercilious being who deserves to be left in a room alone with Hastini to be tortured to death? I think we can definitely both agree on that." Galderian snorted, finally aligning with Delphius for once. It was clear that almost everyone on the expedition loathed Rivinle as a ridiculously egoistic soldier, arrogantly disdainful of almost everyone else - seemingly a typical example of the Juggernaut mentality that had been drilled into him.

"Don't you just wish that something would just burst out of the ground and eat him?" Vince chipped into their conversation with equal, quiet enthusiasm. Delphius and Galderian both nodded in firm agreement.

"Why can't Pepin just kill Rivinle on the spot? It's not like he's done any good on this expedition; he's probably done much more worse than good in fact." Yaleris joined, also eager to show her dissatisfaction with the arrogant Juggernaut as everyone else.

"That's the problem." Now Nircurus had caught up to their whispering and was congregating with the walking line that had formed from the one-sided debate on how to treat Rivinle. "Rivinle and some of his soldiers are genuinely strong and Rivinle himself could potentially kill Pepin if he ever felt threatened by his presence. At the moment, it appears that he simply enjoys irritating Pepin with his comments to reinforce his superiority."

Everyone else shook their heads in disappointment

"Unfortunate, I know." Nircurus finished.

As the five of them continued ambling along the rough road, contemplating how to kill Rivinle, Vince inquired jokingly "Why can't you shut Rivinle down with some of your superior intellect or knowledge, or maybe Galderian?"

"Yet another complication. Rivinle hasn't lost a single battle he has participated in, the Juggernauts are usually deployed in relatively small taskforces, averaging around 20 per group, and they specialise in breaking through enemy lines, sabotage missions, ambushing enemy figures of command etcetera. The one major failure of Juggernauts was when they were sent to the Maxilla Peninsula, when only half of them returned alive, and according to reports, they were indefinitely shaken by what had happened, at least temporarily. Unfortunately for Galderian and I, Rivinle wasn't there, so I can't criticise him in any professional manner." Nircurus resolved in a depressed tone. Maybe Rivinle's arrogance was slightly justified.

"Well at least you're safe from criticism." Vince spoke up again after a moment of silence, with a volume still unheard by Rivinle.

In a concerned tone, Nircurus continued "Perhaps I am, but I'm significantly more concerned for Galderian than myself. If a Juggernaut was to take command of the expedition, such as Rivinle, one of their favourable tactics used a full frontal charge, which the enhanced Juggernauts can use to break through or at least disrupt any part of an enemy battle line. However, none of us here are Juggernauts, therefore we are much more likely to die. Whereas I would debate the order to charge, agree to it eventually, and then just use my own strategies anyway, I sometimes sense that Galderian quarrels too much with those he disagrees with over tactics, and will almost never compromise. With a Juggernaut, that sort of behaviour is quite dangerous."

"I suppose so" Vince shrugged "I doubt the Council will bother to send another Juggernaut if Rivinle is still alive, and Pepin will never relinquish control to him either."

"Let's us hope so." Agreed Yaleris.

"Yeah, Pepin even has Tangeldis on his side, who's probably quite even matched against... wait, are those eyes?" Vince stared in the direction of the forest, looking into a bulbous pair of shining red eyes hidden deep within the fighting.

"Eyes? Please don't tell me there are more Crawlers now! I just cleaned my halberd! And now this visibility means that we can't actually see them." Yaleris groaned.

"No, I can only see one or two pairs, but it looks like they're-WHAT THE?"

The mound that Vince was standing on collapsed beneath his feet, revealing a small pit in the road.

The cries of multiple other soldiers erupted in the air from several points at the front of the convoy. "What's happening..."

Yaleris' question was cut short as the ground beneath Nircurus gave way, leaving him with his spear lodged into part of the soil in an attempt to prevent himself from falling in completely.

Further on, Pepin was finally saved from Rivinle’s persecution of him, when they were both dropped into pits of their own. "Well, at least this is better than before..." Pepin's relief suddenly evaporated as he felt a Crawler's jaw clench around his stocky leg, and begin tugging with tremendous force. Loud screams and yelps informed Pepin that most of there were more victims of this trap.

The Crawler bit deeper into his limb, digging its teeth into the metallic greave on his leg while it clawed at his unarmoured knee joint, causing Pepin to gasp in pain as it narrowly avoided the knee itself. Intent on freeing himself, he reached for his throwing axe at his side, just as he noticed that the Crawler was attempting to drag him further into a small tunnel reminiscent of a rabbit hole - only that the screams and growls emanating from within suggested that it was not rabbits, but something fat worse.

"General!" A woman's voice screeched from above, clearly aggravated. With the speed of a lightning bolt, her spear pierced the Crawler's neck as it was about to disappear into its tunnel, taking Pepin along with it. The creature stopped pulling with as much force, narrowing its eyes in a sort of wince, allowing Pepin to smash his throwing axe diagonally into its head, dashing it's brains out and leaving a significant dent in the skull.

With his blood still pumping as though a chariot race was taking place in his body, Pepin slowly prised the dead Crawler's jaw open to release his leg. Luckily, the Crawler had not targeted his vulnerable kneecap, which was more exposed than his lower leg. This time, the spearwoman, who had effectively saved him from being devoured, reached her hand down to help the diminutive Pepin out of the pit.

"Thank you Tillecthel!" Pepin panted, blood still coursing through his arteries and veins. His legs scrambled up the crumbling soil back up onto the road while Bregecthel pulled him out.

"General, I'm sure this was a deliberate trap - almost all of the captains at the front of the convoy have been ensnared in some of these pits." Tillecthel informed him. As Pepin registered his surroundings, he saw multiple near-identical pits everywhere.

"They targeted all the captains? Any good news?" Pepin inquired.

"Well, Rivinle is dead sir. The Crawlers dragged him down one of the tunnels. I'm sure I could hear him screaming as he probably tore apart several Crawlers with his bare hands, so at least he was somewhat useful until the Crawlers most likely devoured him." Tillecthel proclaimed, somewhat ironically. Pepin let a small smile appear on his face. No matter how brutal a fate it was, he was sure that Rivinle deserved such punishment. There would not have been a more efficient and humiliating method to eliminate him.

***

Vince blinked and rubbed his eyes, slightly dizzy from falling. He could hear some commotion above, but no sound came out clearly.

Confounded, he scrolled his eyes around the small pit he had just collapsed into. Above the pit was Delphius, Galderian and Yaleris, but Nircurus was strangely not present.

"Vince, are you ok? Nircurus just fell into a hole similar to yours." Delphius's voice came through and Vince nodded, trying to stand up on his pain-riddled legs. Then he noticed a small hole at the lower side of the pit, sufficiently sized to allow a person to crawl through. "To crawl through..." Vince mumbled to himself as he slowly built up his deduction - a hole small enough for a...

"Crawler!" He exclaimed in panic.

The creature emerged from the tunnel, followed by a much larger Crawler with more prominent eyes. Without hesitation, Vince unsheathed his arming sword and plunged the sword deep into the first Crawler's chest as it leaped onto his torso, instantly killing it and leaving its body lying directly on top of him.

Impaired by the dead Crawler, Vince attempted to roll it off, only to feel his leg being dragged with surprising speed into the tunnel by the second Crawler.

Its jaw was fixed tightly around his leg armour, and Vince could sense the Crawler's saliva as it encased his leg while he was wrenched into the tunnel. Recognising that if he was dragged in, he would be completely defenceless, he began kicking around his legs and stabbed his arming sword into the entrance of the tunnel, trying to pull his weapon to wrench himself free. Now unaware of his surroundings, Vince concentrated on hoisting himself back out of the death hole, pushing the entrance back with the full might of his hands.He did not intend to be eaten alive, or at least just yet.

***

"Something's got Vince's leg!" Delphius warned his fellow soldiers still on the ground. Whether by sheer coincidence or perhaps deliberate intent, both of their captains had fallen prey to this pit trap. Nircurus was being aided by Galderian and Yaleris, who were using their spears to skewer the single Crawler attempting to kill Nircurus. Vince, on the other hand, had no advantage of spears - his soldiers used primarily axes - and he had faced two Crawlers.

"Edlothang! Anyone! Help me dig a hole above this spot here! We need to kill that Crawler!" Delphius yelled in his most commanding voice. Obeying his commands, the squadron brought up their shovels and began demolishing the exact area on the road. Edlothang sprinted up from behind, catching Delphius in the process. The two of them were fixated on the digging spot, ready to stab through the point where they estimated the Crawler would be. A few other Knights had taken to encouraging Vince to continue holding, with even one jumping in to help the effort of dragging him back out of the tunnel.

As the squadron continued to dig, a scale-like texture cropped out of the ground, revealing the bulky Crawler. Edlothang had her sword poised to stab into the Crawler's back, while Delphius had his axe ready to decapitate it. Their strikes went down simultaneously, ending Vince's struggle completely. The captain shuffled out of the hole tentatively. He was still alive.

***

“Hmm, that's unusual, there may be something lurking underneath the road.” Vectiam spoke quietly.

“Captain Parean, do you think that we’re being watched? The fog makes it easier for them to ambush us.” Uldarlas questioned her, with a similar level of caution. "Even that sign there, saying 'Welcome to Rovaltinny' has some air of danger."

“Potentially…” Parean trailed off into an eerie silence, alleviated by the mutterings of other soldiers. “Remember, simply stay vigilant and…”

“WHAT THE-!” a sudden scream from the front of the column smashed the relative quiet. The three captains twisted their heads around at the sound, which was followed by a cascade of similar grunts and yells. “What's happening?” Yunathrad whispered, her voice barely audible.

Just as Parean was about to suggest something, the mound beneath her crumpled into oblivion, dropping her into a deepened pothole as she slumped to its side. “Did this just happen... to everyone?” Yunathrad puzzled, confounded to an even greater extent than before. Parean groaned in response, attempting to stagger back onto her two feet.

Exactly when she reached out her hands for her soldiers to pull her out, a Crawler burst out of the rubble of the dirt road, clawing at her armoured heel and yanking it off balance. Parean once again crumpled to the side, fumbling around as she dropped her shield.

The Crawler dragged her foot into the smaller passage it had presumably constructed itself. Unwilling to suffer being forced into a position of disadvantage and devoured by a single Crawler, Parean retrieved her shield and jabbed the point straight at the Crawler's eye, gouging it out and leaving the creature writhing around as it slipped back through its tunnel. Mostly unscathed, she clamoured back out of the pit, rubbing her heel as she did so.

"A Crawler? Why are they intelligent enough to attack all our captain in a trap?" Uldarlas probed, her voice significantly more nervous.

"This is certainly worrying. If they had succeeded in killing me, that would have disrupted the chain of command even further and caused more chaos." Parean reflected "If they are targeting all the captains, that is certainly worse."

Parean's fears were confirmed as, seconds later, a pit opened up beneath Yunathrad, swallowing her. A second later, she screamed in pain as the Crawler that lay in wait tore around her ankles, securing its jagged teeth and retreating into the tunnel. Parean, lacking a weapon with sufficient reach, launched her hand out for Yunathrad to hold on. Seeing that Parean alone could not free her comrade from the grasp of the Crawler, Vectiam thrust her halberd downwards, intending to spear the Crawler directly.

It was to no avail.

Facing an enhanced Crawler, or possibly more than one, the efforts of Parean and a few of her soldiers, who were equally attempting to rescue Yunathrad, momentarily collapsed, dropping Yunathrad to the base of the pit.

No longer facing resistance, the Crawler flung her into the tunnel, escaping just in time for Vectiam's halberd to punch a hole clean into Yunathrad's abdomen.

Yunathrad's mouth opened to let out a gasp, but no sound came out. Vectiam stood there, shocked to the core as the revelation came to her: she had killed her own friend. Her halberd remained embedded directly inside Yunathrad, shaking with Vectiam's trembling hands. Parean and her soldiers stared in disbelief, slowly reaching back in the hole to evacuate Yunathrad's lifeless body, which the Crawler had left behind.

Intending to break the deathly silence that surrounded her, Uldarlas commented: "Welcome to Rovaltinny indeed - the land of stone and death."

Chapter Five - A Broken Wing Edit

"Four captains have been killed sir, all at the front half of the column: Rivinle Linburec, Yunathrad Huhang, Saucifel Ijovlar and Cilenu Pilcelet. Two captains have been incapacitated: Osgaron Ristalth, who needs to have his leg amputated, and Aiiror Wouzhing, who is still unconscious. Another five have been injured, but are not in a serious condition: Vince Sihanouk, Parean Jagmoris, Shaozkar Balseju, Quargerin Norsiori..."

Pepin was still scrunching up his eyes and reopening them, trying to clear his head as Tangeldis was relaying information to him. "How had they targeted specifically captains and figures of command, rather than just any soldier?" he mused.

"General? Is something wrong?" Tangeldis had picked up on Pepin's unusual lack of attentiveness.

After a brief pause, Pepin returned "Those Crawlers must have targeted all the captains deliberately. There is no way that all 17 victims, including myself and five other unharmed captains, were by coincidence in some position of command. They must have planned out a trap below the road, which means they have obviously become significantly more intelligent."

"Commanding the rear of the column, I had no problems of Crawlers specifically, but the baggage train was immensely difficult to manoeuver around the pits left behind. At least we are actually in the town of Blebfennas, or Wingsgate as some locals call it, so we are closer to Roval than previously anticipated." Tangeldis stated.

There was no hiding of the unease both of them felt. They had been thrust into a post of command simply because Pepin was the only available Great Knight commander with an interest in the north (his father had died on a failed expedition 8 years ago) and Tangeldis the only competent and sufficiently loyal subordinate delegated to Pepin. In truth, neither thought that the Eclipse Expedition was a force to be reckoned with: half were completely inexperienced and fresh out of training; a quarter were fanatically loyal to the Great Knight council and refused to even remain in the same camp as Pepin's contingent; and the remaining quarter, who could actually be trusted, were overworked to compensate for the incompetence of the expedition as a whole.

Their current situation was worsening - not only had their only nearby allies disappeared, but their chain of command had been culled even further. Now they were a bumbling body of soldiers failing at their objective and entering a devoid land. "Oh how fortunate I have been." he sarcastically praised the Council. "All they do is sit in a castle and decide which potential reformer to throw into the wild to be devoured by some creature, while they lounge about in their mansions. Bourgeoisie pigs."

He wished that more of the Great Knights had the tolerance to allow more people to step out of the Great Chain, to be free from restrictions on ambition, belief, individuality. "For society to function, why would everyone have a set place in society? Jygarn Invincibilis worked his way up the ranks from a peasant to a governor; my father was once just a peasant as well. Why are we bound by such rules?"

Tired of his own pondering, Pepin excused himself from the command tent and stepped outside into the chilly Rovalian air. Around him, the town of Blebfennas, lay in ruins. Whatever army had occupied it, they had done an exemplary job of wiping out the populace. The crude huts and tree houses of poorer Rovalian villagers had been burnt to ash, and the larger houses were all partially collapsed. Even the location sign, rare for a Rovalian town, saying "You are now in Wingsgate" had simply broken. The conditions of the buildings were simply unsuitable to accommodate anyone. Instead, they had constructed a camp in a makeshift state, one that was ready to move out as soon as sunrise came, and with most of the wagons left unpacked and strewn across at accessible locations. From each tent wafted the pungent scent of upturned mud and likely some form of refuse which unwitting knights had accidentally trod on, all of which caked the boots of every single soldier drifting through the camp. "The Rovalians can fly, so I presume they wouldn't care about the condition of their roads, especially not if they have to clean up after random animals were leaving their waste behind." The thick fog that had seemingly blanketed the entire region had remained fixated over the encampment, including the separated camp that lay a few hundred metres down the road towards the Rovalian capital. "Onward to Roval we go."

***

"Hey Samson, how's your foot?" Several members of Vince's squadron had entered the medical tent, visiting their lieutenant.

"I am completely fine, it seems that any damage from those pools of venom was minute." He replied confidently. "Being transported in a wagon was probably worse than walking, but at least it saved me from destroying my sabaton with mud."

Delphius snorted, smiling vaguely "Yeah, instead they were corroded by poison, so here's your present from General Pepin the Short: a pair of leather boots."

Samson's lack of enthusiasm for what seemed to be a downgrade of his own equipment was rather pronounced. "Ah, thanks" he spoke tersely, reaching out from his temporary bed. "Anyway, why would they delegate time to heal me if I'm almost fit to fight. They should be concentrating all their medical resources to help someone like Osgaron. Apparently he wasn't wearing any greaves and the Crawler completely mangled his legs. Now, his wounds are septic and one of legsuch need to be amputated to stop the infection spreading!"

"Classic Osgaron, not wearing any armour and then being brutally attacked. What a lad!" Delphius jeered in laughter, with most of the other Knights raising broad smirks.

"Well, we'll be off soon on yet another scouting mission, this time with four squadrons, because that will definitely help us be stealthy." Vince commented with sarcasm.

"Typical Great Knight logic. Follow the leader, run around blindly, get yourself killed - that applies to most people on this expedition." Samson expressed, with an element of irony. Years of life under what they experienced as tyranny, foolishness and elitism had heavily influenced how they perceived the world, and how they made fun of it - with satire. "Hierarchical structures are ridiculous. All the council ever justify it with is with maintaining 'order'. Order? Can you believe that?"

"As long as it keeps us safe, I don't mind it." Edlothang responded to Samson's political statement.

"But it doesn't." He replied "We're not safe. Or at least, not safe from the strongest, the most brutal, and those who claim that they are at the top of the Great Chain."

"The Great Chain. What a useless concept." Delphius concurred "We can't be ourselves. Instead, we are supposed be, what? A single part of society? Who even designed this? Shouldn't we be allowed to do what we want?"

Vince initially remained silent. He acknowledged everything: how flawed this system of a Great Chain was, how collectivism could not sustain itself. Regardless, he felt a certain unease whenever this subject ever materialised.

After a long pause, which everyone had used to broach an appropriate response, Vince finally spoke up again "So, what would we have in place of a Great Chain? Wouldn't democracy help?"

"Democracy? The only reason I know what that word means was because it's Hellenic! Why would a mob rule be any better?" Delphius retaliated "What we need is a ruler who can bring true equality, not some uneducated fools who say they want more money!"

"Which is why we need equality." Samson continued "Our leaders want us to be ignorant so they can justify that they are the only people who can lead without causing 'chaos'. Yet, I would infinitely prefer 'chaos' to this unequal, false, maliciously-maintained 'order'."

***

"Order or Chaos? Which is better?" The question had been embedded itself into Vince's mind, prompting all the political arguments within himself to start conflicting. He was from a privileged background, the third son of a knight who had inherited part of the properties of Malendor Sihanouk, one of the founders of the Great Knights, and so he had never had any problems of discrimination or poverty. But for Samson and Delphius, Vince knew that their upbringing had been significantly worse. Samson had been at the whim of his master Lord Beriaur for the entirety of his childhood. Delphius had abusive, alcoholic parents until the age of 7, and then he was sent to work for Beriaur as well.

“Vince, keep up! You're falling behind!” Another captain stirred him from his meditation.

“Sorry Quargerin,” he replied “I'm just thinking.”

“Thinking about what? The meaning of life, the universe and everything? Please specify.” Quargerin inquired comically, almost leering.

“Would you prefer anarchy to our current political situation? As in, would you prefer ‘chaos’ or ‘order’?”

Caught off guard by Vince’s political question, Quargerin took her time to respond. “Anarchy seems just as bad as tyranny, but for different reasons. I’m not so ill-content with our current system, but that's probably because I'm Vinusian, so the Vinus Region is partially autonomous and doesn't have to follow the strict rules they have in the north. From what I know, neither system works particularly well."

Quargerin's mundane answer did nothing to quell his concerns; it may have been the same ideal he held, but neither him nor Quargerin could fully sympathise with the wish for Anarchy that both Samson and Delphius held dear.

"You should still be concentrating on our mission rather than trying to gauge politics." Quargerin attempted to bring Vince back out of his self-questioning again.

He nodded in response and continued marching, surveying further up the road. Above, clouds were materialising from the remnants of the fog, mutating into increasingly colossal grey leviathans hovering in the sky, preparing to unleash its payload of precipitation. "More rain. That's going to make marching even worse than usual." Someone muttered behind him.

The dejected Great Knight vanguard pressed on its unrelenting march a few kilometres north west. So far, there had been no Crawlers, but all the same, no live Rovalians either. In fact, not even a single Rovalian corpse existed - lumps of flesh and piles of bones were scattered everywhere, but there were no intact bodies, just fallen statues.

The column fell silent once again as they were stunned by another large group of petrified Rovalians, this time almost 40 in number, arrayed in defensive positions on the road. The shattered scree of what was presumably once a few Rovalian soldiers similarly lay on the road. Several Knights were shaking their head in remorse, sighing about their fallen, yet distant, allies.

Suddenly, a withery, screechy voice pierced the respectful silence. "Ah good mage, I believe you have yet to fulfill your promise of kin-AAAGGGHH!" Whoever, or whatever was speaking, was clearly in pain, perhaps even being tortured, and only a minute distance from the left of the column.

Apprehensive, Vince and Quargerin both turned towards that direction, signalling for their squadrons to fan out into groups to locate the source of the screaming. "Shaozkar, keep your squadron on guard here." Quargerin whispered to the other captain.

"You idiot! How is your voice even that loud? I've never heard someone scream so loud from being ironed on the back, or at least not that I was actually concerned about. Do you know that the only reason you're even alive is because you're going to be used for some more experimental purposes?" Hissed what was presumably the 'good mage'.

"Yes, experimentation to make me truly worthy of being a Rovalian King!" The other replied, completely ignorant of the mage's pronounced hatred towards him.

"I would definitely like to torture you to death you Rovalian scumbrain!" The mage retorted.

"Rovalian?" The word flashed into Vince's mind once again as he edged closer to the two. There was a possibility of saving the Wingidon who sounded so demented. With a low-lying motion, he crept up towards them, gathering his troops in a circle around the mage and Rovalian. Peeking through the roots, ferns and trunks, his jaw dropped noiselessly as he processed what his eyes were informing him of: a walking skeleton, wielding a bone staff and emitting an aura of darkness, while a black frill protruded out of its neck; and a Wingidon, wearing a mysterious mask, boasting more wounds than Vince could count and sporting a pair of folded wings, one of which was battered and almost leathery in appearance, completely different to its counterpart. Unnerved, Vince glanced at Delphius, who was crouched directly behind the distracted mage, ready to pounce.

"I suppose your brain deterioration would be useful for us to study, but that doesn't change the fact that I want to torture to death right ..." Delphius' axe smashed directly through the skeleton mage's exposed, pearl-white skull, instantly shattering it into a thousand fragments as a dark red aura fled from its crippled body. The Wingidon screamed in shock and began running in the opposite direction, only for Quargerin and her squadron to block him off. Intimidated by the presence of over 50 armed soldiers with superior weaponry, he raised his arms in a sign of surrender. "You don't work for Chaos, do you?" The Wingidon questioned on an extremely timid tone.

"Chaos? Who or what is Chaos?" Quargerin returned with her own question, just as confounded as all the others in her party.

The Rovalian replied hesitantly "Chaos? I don't ... I don't really, er .. know. They call themselves the Undead Army or something, hehe, and they promised me ... er ... to be King... when I invited them to my own ... er ... Kingdom ... My Kingdom, he he he..."

"Sorry, you're the Rovalian King?" Vince interrupted the Rovalian's stuttering and repetitive speech. "You have no appearance of royalty, and why would only one skeleton mage be guarding you if you were the leader of the kingdom they just conquered? In fact, what is your name?"

"My name, my name is err... King Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti, and I ... er... I am a king ... King ... of all Rovalians... and that mage was leading me to my...er, throne room!" The Wingidon yelled almost in realisation. "Here, here look... my crown... see I am the king"

Ashangul pulled out a shodily-made crude lump of seemingly golden material, encrusted with a single, unpolished fragment of granite. Clutching it with both scarred hands, he presented the "crown" to Vince and Quargerin, beaming ridiculously. Both of them were glancing nervously at each other.

"Sorry King Ashangul for my impetuousness, but why on Inamorta is there a stone in the centre of your 'crown'?" Delphius broke in jereringly. Vince smiled at Delphius' subtle imitation of Samson.

"Why, this is a... er... stone, a gem stone!" Ashangul blurted out.

"A ruddy lump of granite is not a gem stone" Delphius scoffed.

"Who made this abomination of a crown?" Quargerin inquired mockingly, attempting to bend it slightly. A small protrusion shattered off.

"I did! No one gave me a crown so I , er... went into a mountain and found some... er... gold." Ashangul answered in an agitated fashion.

"Yeah, gold alright." Quargerin smirked as she snapped off another fragment. "Look how brittle and hard this is. It's pyrite - fool's gold."

"Are you mistaking me for a fool you...er...ungrateful wench!" Ashangul screamed at her, snatching the Crown back out of her hands.

Quargerin raised her eyebrows at Ashangul's bizarre reaction, and then replied calmly "I have a friend named Delphius here, and he would be very willing to split your skull in half, so I advise you shut up or you will end up dead." Ashangul glared at her momentarily, and then glanced around him. All of the Great Knights had their weapons at the ready, prepared to end this insane being once and for all.

"Is this how you treat a king?" He exclaimed, raising a shrivelled fist.

"Listen, your royal highness, we need you to take us to come back with us so you can meet our leader and show us what happened to your Kingdom. We are the Great Knights and it us our sworn duty to protect all of those too weak to defend themselves." Edlothang's soothing voice instantly tranquilised Ashangul, who stopped shaking his fists at them. Amused, Delphius snorted at the end of Edlothang's last statement. "Because we definitely don't just bulldoze any weak nation that doesn't immediately surrender when we turn up on their doorstep." He whispered to Vince, who grinned in response.

Quargerin articulated an order for the soldiers: "Well then, let's bring the lunatic back with us. He has quite a lot of explaining to do."

***

"So, you're informing me that this Rovalian, named Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti, who is very clearly mentally disabled and crippled, is their King?" Pepin's surprise radiated through his voice.

"That is what he claims sir, although whether there is any truth in it is dubious." Quargerin responded. "I presume he needs to be interrogated then."

"He is the first living Rovalian that we have seen on this expedition, but our interrogation must be more cautious. We can't afford to lose any information if he attempts suicide based on mental instability, or if he attempts to flee and returns to the organisation known as 'Chaos' or the 'Undead Army'." Pepin replied confidently.

Quargerin saluted and steeped towards the exit "Well then, good luck talking to this...false King."

Chapter Six - Desolation Edit

"Good to meet you your majesty." Pepin enunciated gently. He raised his hand with a similar speed to Ashangul, who sat on a stool opposite him, cradling himself in his own arms.

"You shall address me as King Ashangul of Rovaltinny, nothing more, nothing less...I mean as Ashangul Hasetenya ... err... Hasetenya ... Nigisti ... Chaos ... KING ... I am a king!" Ashangul's fragmented speech and bizarre accentuation was lost on Pepin's confused expression. He glanced back at Tangeldis, who was sitting patiently behind him, and Rethdurk, who was glaring at Ashangul.

"This Wingidon is very clearly insane." Rethdurk whispered to Tangeldis, with his eyes still fixated on Ashangul. Pepin let out a sigh as he turned back to his subject. Ashangul's was continually jerking his muscles around, as though in a spasm attack.

"King Ashangul, do you think that you can tell me what happened to your kingdom?" Pepin queried the confused Rovalian, trying to maintain an atmosphere of calm.

"My kingdom...yes...er...my kingdom is...err...mine! It's mine! Err.. Tolip... you... never...I am king now! Hahahaha! Yes, I am king! Do you hear err....Tolip...I am the rightful king...Chaos...I have commanded Chaos...This kingdom is mine!" Ashangul burst out again into an ecstasy of laughter.

"If I were you Pepin, I would just kill this lunatic. If not, you may just end up going insane yourself." Rethdurk commented again.

"I know." Pepin replied. "But we can't."

"I find it hard to believe that this Wingidon will provide us with any more clear information. Something tells me that he was never mentally stable in the first place, and judging by his wounds, he has been tortured significantly." Rethdurk remarked, but this time with more seriousness.

"How is your sixth sense able to detect his previous mental state? " a genuinely curious Tangeldis inquired.

"Well, you probably infer it from his crown." Rethdurk held up the irregular mass of fool's gold, complete with a granite piece in the centre. "I honestly don't think that Rovalian crowns are anywhere near as bad as this, and apparently it was self sourced, so no one helped him create it. Therefore no one thought he was King, hence he may have been slightly insane, thinking he was indeed royalty, and possibly requested aid from what he calls 'Chaos, to overthrow the Rovalians'."

"Well, Vince and Quargerin did report that to me, so I suppose it does make sense." Pepin contemplated Rethdurk's theory.

"Actually, he may be able to give a definitive answer now if you ask him." Rethdurk informed the general. "It looks like you barely need me to explain myself any more. Excellent!" The voice in Rethdurk's head exclaimed. "After 15 years or so of possession by a spirit that barely matures, I think I can explain myself Tarramiso-Katos." Rethdurk replied to the voice silently.

"Using my longer name then? Well then Lord Rethdurk von Kark, I see once again that I could not have chosen a better host! Although, if you were initially stronger, I could definitely have been more powerful. But, you can't have everything." Tarramiso-Katos snapped back in a playful manner. "In terms of being conscious though, I'm actually a year older."

"Sorry to interrupt your, ahem, 'sixth sense regeneration' Rethdurk, but could you please send a messenger to Parean, Nircurus and Hastini to move their detachments out." Pepin broke Rethdurk's internal dialogue with the spirit of Tarramiso-Katos, who he simply named Katos.

"Oh, yes sir, of course." Rethdurk rushed out of the tent awkwardly. "Not your finest excuse for talking with me, but I guess it makes sense to stick with it." Katos laughed.

***

"Their king, well, has a crown that probably imitates that of the Eclipsors to the south, which the Rovalians have apparently fought against in several skirmishes, but never been overly aggressive to. It represents the very best of Rovalian smithery and even compared to our metallurgy, is quite impressive!"

"Hmm" Parean scratched her head as she continued reading a transcribed copy of the journal of a Great Knight Adventurer who had discovered Rovaltinny with his party over 50 years ago.

"Salutations Parean" Nircurus entered her command tent. He was already equipped with his full armour and clutched his short spears in his right hand.

"Hello Nircurus!" Parean lifted her head up briefly, gave a small smile to Nircurus, before turning back to her book. "On the previous reconnaissance mission, Vince and Quargerin discovered a single Rovalian guarded by a skeleton mage who was torturing him. When they freed him, the Rovalian subsequently claimed to be King, giving a poorly-made 'crown' as evidence."

"Judging by that journal, he was clearly lying then?" Nircurus intrigued.

"Most likely he was insane, because there is no way that a crown described as 'the very best of Rovalian smithery' would end up as a lump of fool's gold" she nodded.

"Excuse me captains, but Rethdurk has informed us that our squadrons are now preparing to scout, alongside Hastini and her group." Yaleris announced.

"Yay! Hastini!" Parean exclaimed with heavily-fortified sarcasm. "I suppose I should get all my equipment then. Don't you think that it's somewhat unfortunate that we can no longer afford to kill Hastini, who is useless as a sadistic deterrent to others now that we aren't fighting genuine people?" She posed her question to Nircurus.

"Yes, her caustic personality will only worsen the morale of the expedition." Nircurus replied

***

Water poured down from the heavens as the beastly black cloud above relieved its burden. The wind brutally pummelled the surrounding  trees, thrashing the grand structures of nature about, while sporadic bursts of thunder illuminated the shrouded afternoon mist. Beleaguered by the constant rain, Parean wrapped her cloak further around herself, narrowing her eyes to protect them from the relentless hail of water. Rivers of mud engulfed the already soiled boots of the miserable knights as they plodded through the squelching ground.

“We’re only three or four kilometres away from the south gate of Roval. Apparently, the city is irregularly shaped due to the Valley partially separating the West and East sections, and the south east has a lot of farmland before a reasonably large district.” she yelled, attempting to communicate with Nircurus.

“I thought Roval was much more than a few kilometres away, almost like 30 or something!” Uldarlas exclaimed in surprise.

“Well Uldarlas, that would probably be the East Gate you are referring to, because going around the multiple mountains which border the roads would take much longer. Sending us on there would be incredibly ridiculous, given our lack of supplies, numbers and mountaineering equipment.” Parean addressed Uldarlas.

“Basically Uldarlas, you're wrong.” Lobaten stated jokingly. Uldarlas glared at him amusingly, twisting her head right in spite of the torrential rain and wind.

Remaining curious, Uldarlas intrigued again “Captain Parean, do you think that the enemy will attack us now, or maybe even the Serpentine?”

“The Crawlers are apparently native, but there are also skeleton mages, which so far appear to be in small numbers as our expedition has yet to encounter more than one. I vouch that we will not encounter them in these weather conditions provided we remain on the road.” Parean returned.

Speculatively, Uldarlas probed further “Will we encounter any Serpentine?”

Lobaten elbowed her on her right side, irritated by Uldarlas’ incessant questioning. “Could you please stop asking questions for at least a minute. In fact, you’ve repeated that last question at least twice now!”

"Well, maybe I'm genuinely interested in whether we actually encounter any Serpentine." Uldarlas retorted.

"Uldarlas, I've already informed you about this." Parean sighed with an air of slight annoyance, smiling ironically at her subordinate. "Sometimes I wonder why you haven't been imprisoned by the Great Knights for asking too many questions" she added sarcastically, grinning as she did so.

"I just hope that they haven't noticed yet." Uldarlas replied jokingly.

A sudden gust of wind smashed directly into them, followed by a loose branch, which snapped of and dropped directly down on Lobaten. Slightly panicked, he rushed forward to avoid it, only to slip over in the torrential rain on a patch of mud, causing him to lurch further forward, trip and collide with the mud.

Bemused, Uldarlas cackled maniacally at the collapsed Lobaten, who was still attempting to push himself out of the muddy quagmire he had tripped into. He swore as he spat out a mouthful of sludge, coughing and retching as he settled back on his feet shakily in the wind. Parean, more intent on helping one of her best soldiers rather than ridiculing him, patted him on the back, and grimaced as she saw his entire front side layered with muck.

"What happened there Lobaten, did you just try to eat from a pile of dung?" Hastini flouted sneeringly, while her companions giggled and snorted as they beheld the mud-caked Lobaten.

Lobaten gritted his teeth and made an offensive gesture at Hastini's group. "Lobaten", Parean whispered quietly as she tapped the humiliated knight on the shoulder, "I acknowledge that you desire to torture them to death, but at the moment, that is not necessary. We can rip them all to shreds and administer the 'thousand cuts' method on them when we are in a suitable situation, but not when we are marching and you have just tripped over into the mud."

Still frustrated, Lobaten grunted as he unclenched his fists. Parean could still hear the raucous, vulgar and obnoxious taunts that Hastini and her troops were still throwing around to describe Lobaten. "I hope they die a painful death soon" she surmised.

"I have to admit though, that was quite funny." Uldarlas chortled gleefully, to which Lobaten simply elbowed her stomach with deliberate force.

"Just please be quiet Uldarlas, or I'll want to kill you as well." Lobaten growled, muttering a few other curses directed at Uldarlas and Hastini's squadron under his breath.

"Yes Uldarlas, please don't irritate him further." Parean instructed the still-giggling Uldarlas in a controlled tone, to which Uldarlas immediately fell silent.

***

"Why are they even bickering and insulting each other over an accident?" Yaleris questioned rhetorically, frowning at all the soldiers guffawing at the sight of a muddy Lobaten.

Nircurus answered regardless "They are people, and people cause a frustratingly large number of problems for each other. The day when they will be content with every single person is very unlikely to come in over 2000 years."

"Unless we kill most of them. That way, this world would be much better!" Yaleris joked, raising a sly smile from Nircurus.

"Agreed" Galderian commented as he also stared at the ridiculing behind him "I suggest 50% of the population should be killed in a typical selective fashion! That way, we can eliminate all the bigots in society." He smirked sarcastically.

“We would have to commit genocide more than once to handle overpopulation, but otherwise I see absolutely nothing wrong with it” The three of them chuckled at their new, utterly satirical, theory of solving the problems of the world.

“Speaking of genocide, the gate to Roval is just around there…” Yaleris stopped in her tracks as she surveyed the final stretch of swampy pathway behind the slight bend. More than 2,000 petrified Wingidons and many more fragments of broken stone, detached limbs and lumps of decaying flesh littered the site. Arrows were peppered everywhere and pools of poison still scarred the remnants of the road. At the gate itself, the Wingidon statue, the standard of the Wingidon army, had crumbled into dust.

Immediately, Nircurus ordered his soldiers to fan out to investigate the battlefield, while sending a message down to the rest of the column.

Blood, flesh and feathers. “An unusual combination” Nircurus reflected. Several of the characteristically feathered wings of the Theryn and Rovalians had been torn off or somehow detached from the bodies. “Where are their bodies?” he puzzled, searching around for any sign of an intact corpse. There were none.

“Captain Nircurus, do you know what this ‘Chaos’ has done with the Wingidon bodies? After a battle like this, surely some corpses must remain” a soldier inquired.

“They could have disposed of the corpses, or perhaps the Crawlers devoured them. I’m similarly confused about this Menegar.” Nircurus responded, still examining the shattered remains of a petrified Wingidon. The expression that was permanently carved on to her face was one of determination, but also desperation. “I suspect that they were mounting a last stand against the Chaos invasion, which has apparently… well, beaten us to the Rovalians. They have most certainly captured Roval, and similarly to Blebfennas, where we had previously set up camp, they must have razed a substantial portion of the city and massacred its population. Given that the Western half of Rovaltinny has a greater population, I suspect that they have mostly abandoned the city and begun advancing further westwards.” He proposed his hypothesis to Menegar.

“So, are we too late?” Menegar quivered.

Concerned, Nircurus replied “Yes, and it currently seems that Rovaltinny will fall completely to the Chaos onslaught. Our best hope is to find any survivors to regroup with, but I doubt that our punitive expedition will be able to recapture Rovaltinny.”

Menegar stuttered, shaken by this revelation: “We’ve failed…”

***

“The Chaos army has likely wiped out all Rovalian resistance in the South-Eastern provinces of Rovaltinny and captured their capital, which has presumably been exterminated. They probably intended to split the Rovalian forces in two, since they deployed their main offensive up from the south east, rather than the east, where the Rovalians previously believed to be the point of attack and stationed a large contingent accordingly. As a result, the East pocket will be destroyed in a matter of days without sufficient supplies or communication with the capital, especially given that their opponents must have a large number of anti-air infantry. Whoever the Chaos general is, they are definitely intelligent.” Nircurus relayed his hypothesis to Parean.

“I have to admit, their rapid advancement and strategy is proving to be very impressive. We know that they lack cavalry, but that Crawlers do serve them, so that could explain it. Chaos must have initiated a small-scale attack to divert Rovalian forces.” Parean spoke as she contemplated and visualised their military movements with the map of Rovaltinny she had ingrained into her brain from the sheer amount of studying she had done on it.

“Did someone just say cavalry?” Galderian intruded gleefully. “We're fighting a worthy opponent without our own cavalry - this is disgraceful!” He shook his head as both Parean and Nircurus grinned at him.

Satisfied with Galderian's short interruption, Nircurus continued serenely “Anyway, I plan to do a small sweep of the gatehouse to descry any traps that could ensnare us and search for a few survivors. Then, our squadrons should return and inform Pepin to search the entire city to gather what has happened.”

“Who cares about strategy and survivors? We might as well kill everyone for the sake of it.” A bored Hastini blurted out. “If I don't get to kill someone in the next few hours, I might as well start killing a few Knights.” she glared at them.

“You are not required to emphasise your homicidal nature. We already know.” Parean returned without facing in her direction at all. “Without a good strategy, you would be killed without being able to kill an opponent. Therefore, I believe you should leave the planning to us, and we shall delegate the killing to you. Now, we need to search for any survivors” She reprimanded her.

“Fine” Hastini groaned and stormed off to her own squadron. “Don’t expect me to bring them back alive!” she yelled.

“Galderian, you know what to do.” Nircurus cued his lieutenant.

“Yes Nircurus, time to take to supervise Hastini with my half.” The lieutenant replied, sounding slightly depressed.

***

The hallways of the castle were completely deserted. Splatters of blood and corrosive stains plastered the walls as Parean trod carefully, avoiding the putrid material. Lobaten, Uldarlas and several of her other soldiers followed.

“This place reeks of the dead.” One of them complained, ill at ease due to the multitude of lonesome body parts.

“Oh be quiet Wurlam, you’ve been fighting in war for over four years! How have you not adjusted to the scent of dead bodies?” Another soldier hissed at his complaint with a hint of sarcasm, appearing rather amused as she spoke the words. The knight named Wurlam continued to wrinkle his nose in disgust and induced his own coughing to expel the foul air of decay in his lungs.

“Sorry, Orinfori, you’re requesting me to be quiet? And how do you adjust to the scent of death?” He shot back in response quietly.

Orinfori leered at him “Yes, it appears I am - don't pretend that you don't continuously complain about everything. Now, if you continue to talk, you’ll probably trigger a few traps that may have been set for us. You're almost as bad as Uldarlas in that regard. Besides, do you even remember the Lostathon Campaign? Decimating those weak militia soldiers was rather fun, don't you think?”

“I apologise, but both of you do need to be more vigilant about your surroundings. In addition, Orinfori, we killed more than a tenth of the enemy force during that battle, which is what decimating actually means.” Parean caught up with them. Both of them stopped in their tracks, gawping at the pool of liquefied flesh - filling a shallow cavity on the castle ground - they had simultaneously trudged into. As they were about to exclaim in disgust, Parean made a motion for them to be silent, which they agreed to and immediately followed.

From beyond the corridor came the scramble of food crates being knocked over. All 10 members of the quarter-squadron froze to locate the source, which was quite possibly a fatally uncoordinated Chaos scout. With a few silent hand signals, Lobaten and Orinfori crept forward, their vision circumspect. Another crate tipped over and dropped to the floor, revealing the locations to be the storage room that detached from the hallway only several paces away.

Whatever entity was hiding in the room, it had certainly heard their approach. Parean felt a slight tinge of frustration as she had allowed for the unintentional disposal of their advantage of surprise. “Then again, indoor areas make it more difficult to maintain the element of surprise.” She concluded.

The Great Knights unsheathed their weapons. “I suppose it could also be a Rovalian, but I am not suffering a single casualties because of a presumption that this is a friendly being.” Parean's internal monologue of logic continued as she ordered for three other Knights to move to Lobaten and Orinfori’s position, who weaved their silent footsteps between the limbs and organs that littered the stone floor.

Taking a deep but inaudible breath, Parean made a signal for Uldarlas and Wurlam to probe the room. They did so, shields raised to protect their entire bodies as they crouched down to enter the room. Parean peered around the corner to investigate the room herself once her soldiers gave the all-clear gesture. Arrayed around the room were stacks of wooden boxes laden with an assortment of food supplies, most of which had likely been begun to rot due to the recently rainfall and the subsequent dampness in the air, as well as the fact that the castle had likely fallen to Chaos only a few days prior.

The only irregularity was directly in the centre, where numerous crates were scattered across the ground, which had clearly been recently disturbed. As Parean advanced into the room, Uldarlas raised her hand up, pointing at her discovery - a loose feather. “A Wingidon?” Parean began reconstructing how one would attempt to conceal itself. After a few seconds of visualising, she announced her presence softly: “Hello there? Can you hear me? This is Captain Parean Jagmoris of the Great Knights’ Eclipse Expedition, which has been sent to aid the Rovalians against a threat which your people informed us of less than a month ago.”

Hesitantly, the response - an agitated female voice - came “Are you sure?”

Trying to think of the most appropriate reply to such an illogical question (An intelligent Chaos soldier could simply lie and coax them into revealing their position before killing them) Parean answered “Yes, we are part of a vanguard that has just arrived at Roval. Unfortunately, it seems that our attempts were in vain, due to the complete destruction of almost all Rovalians in the region we have traversed. Therefore, we presume that our current mission is now to rescue as many Rovalian survivors as possible and rescue them while we investigate this ‘Chaos’ threat.”

“The Great Knights… I agree, you’ve come much too late to save all of us. I only survived by hiding in an unused waste shaft that led into the caves below. Only one of my friends is with me down in that cave at the moment. The rest are dead.” The Rovalian slowly shuffled out of the crates as she spoke shakily. By any means, her wings appeared completely battered from numerous journeys through a single passage unintended for the movement of people.

“Yet again, not the most logical Rovalian” Parean deduced in her mind “Revealing information about her own allies without having analysed all of us yet; then again, I suppose she may have observed us before her question.”

Uldarlas piped up first in greeting to the Rovalian “Hello, I’m Uldarlas, Captain Parean's lieutenant” Both Parean and Wurlam visibly glared at her as she uttered the word ‘lieutenant’ “What's your name?” she continued, grinning as she saw their expressions from the corner of her eye.

The Rovalian stood upright, glancing at each of the Knights, and raising her hand tentatively in a sort of greeting. “My name is Janiwira Beti. So then, you were supposed to arrive multiple days ago.” She commented with a mixture of anger and fear at the 5 Knights standing alongside her with their weapons drawn.

Maintaining her somewhat friendly persona, Parean explained “The expedition was delayed by multiple lords and military officials, who kept on squabbling with each other over the elements they should send and their equipment. Eventually, our size was reduced to that of 3,100, using largely inexperienced units…”

“Only three thousand! Did the message have any sense of urgency!” Janiwira yelled in frustration. “Half of the army was cut off in a desolate border region to die while Chaos devastated the capital! We had 13,000 soldiers defending the capital in the end, and Chaos just rolled over them, slaughtering my people. They even captured the Augur Tower and massacred the current royal family and all the survivors have been taken away! What are three thousand procrastinating upper-class Knights going to do?”

“Firstly, we are neither procrastinating, nor entirely upper-class, and our soldiers are reasonably effective,  regardless of their lack if experience. Secondly, could you please tell us when all these events occurred, and how you managed to gather this information?” Parean inquired in her usual tranquil demeanour.

Only regarding Parean's second sentence, Janiwira recounted with slightly more confidence “I knew we were doomed as soon as the Chaos Queen, who they call Medusa, came up to the front lines and obliterated half of our formation. Some putrid walking bodies were continually killing our soldiers in the air by throwing their own body parts. I knew I had to fly away. So I retreated to this castle. Their skeleton mages were somehow causing random soldiers to fly off directly into the enemy to be completely obliterated, and they took one of my friends. Another dropped to the ground and I attempted to hide her while she was unconscious, but when I came back a day later, she had disappeared. I saw them marching into our city, and I saw the tower collapse before they surrounded the walls with their gut-throwing zombies. There was no chance of escape, and they killed the rest of my family by breaking through another gate before I could reach them, so I decided to retreat here and hide.”

“Then, did these events occur two days ago?” Parean requested a more concise answer to her question.

“Yes, they did. You were two days late, and now everyone, but one other Wingidon, is dead.” Janiwira was definite in her statement.

Perhaps in an attempt to encourage Janiwira, Parean informed her “There is another Rovalian by the name of Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti, who some of my comrades found being escorted through the forest by a single skeleton mage. However, we have reason to believe that he is in an unstable mental state currently, especially due to his claims to be king.”

“Hang on, did you mention Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti? He’s a 40 year old madman that's continually protested that he is the rightful king!” Janiwira exclaimed, surprised by Parean's minor revelation.

“Really? Intriguing…” Parean registered the information in her brain. “Anyway, would you like to lead us to your companion?” She continued amiably.

Janiwira grunted “Well, I suppose you are here to ‘rescue’ us” and began walking towards the hallway with a slight limp.

Once Janiwira was out of earshot guiding Orinfori and Lobaten to the shaft, Uldarlas whispered to Parean “That's at least three Wingidons still alive. That is progress!”

“Yes” She responded “Hopefully it is…”

Chapter Seven - The Orphanage Edit

As the already-shrouded sun sank further into darkness, Pepin stood outside his tent once more, examining his father's throwing axe. The Franciscus Crest was carved into the handle, while the ornate decoration continued upwards with multiple interweaving lines and shapes, which were still pronounced, even in the relatively dim light. As he traced the patterns with his finger, Pepin contemplated the reports that Parean and Nircurus had theorised. They had brought back seven Rovalian survivors, both a shockingly low number, and yet a reassuring that there were more Rovalians alive than the lunatic Ashangul, the self-proclaimed king, they already had in custody. Pepin was particularly amused at Galderian’s complaint of having to supervise Hastini to ensure that she did not torture the single survivor they found to death.

”Sir, Lieutenant General Tangeldis requests your presence in the command tent. She is currently greeting a new Juggernaut that has been assigned to us...” Tillecthel informed Pepin to break the latter out of his trance-like state.

”A new Juggernaut? The council is replacing Rivinle?“ Pepin intrigued, suddenly ill at ease as Tillecthel spoke.

Gulping, Tillecthel continued hesitantly: “Or to be more precise, multiple Juggernauts led by one general in particular, who you may already know...”

Pepin’s face had begun to drain of colour as he registered who Tillecthel was referring to.

***

The intimidatingly large unhelmeted figure was already looming over Tangeldis, who stood at a head shorter than the Juggernaut. Flanking him were presumably his subordinates, all of whom were clad in chain mail overlapped by layers of steel plating, culminating in an oppressive weight - one that they carried with ease. As was customary, none of them were wearing their characteristic spiked armour in the tent; there was not yet any need to tear through lines of unarmoured infantry.

Rethdurk and Tillecthel marched into the tent, followed by Pepin, who was straining his head upwards to deliberately inflate his apparent size and give him a slight sense of confidence in encountering an old friend. A sense of dread crept up his spine as he identified each of them, in particular, their leader. Rapidly scanning all 13 of the Juggernauts, he could simply detect a faint dark aura emanating from every one of them. They were the paragons of loyalty to the Great Council, leaders who were intended to represent the defenders of light, and yet, there was a hint of another entity lurking beneath their metallic shells.

Katos whispered in Rethdurk's mind "They truly are rather substantial beings; maybe I should have possessed them instead." When Rethdurk did not respond, even mentally, Katos instead switched to relaying information rather than light-hearted mockery: "All of them have smirks behind their helmets, but something is shrouded within them. Something which I doubt that my powers will be able to match, let alone bypass them without detection." Concerned by Katos' worrying hypothesis, Rethdurk diverted his attention to Pepin.

Mustering as much courage as was possible, Pepin addressed them "Greetings Kirev. How are you?" His tone was unintentionally rather cold.

The lead Juggernaut snorted as he glared down at the short general in front of him. "General Franciscus, you are still remarkably diminutive."

Pepin would have smiled at this possible attempt at humour, but he knew all too well that Kirev was no longer in any position to joke with him, and that the statement was more of an intimidating insult. With his best efforts Pepin ignored him, pressing on with his point. "Why are you and 12 other Juggernauts here? Has the Council suddenly decided that we need a few giant hulks of walking metal to help us in an expedition that was ridiculously underfinanced?"

Unsuprised by Pepin's harsh attitude, Kirev replied "No, as a matter of fact, I personally requested to join your expedition." He sniggered silently as Pepin's face contorted into a mixture of rage and confusion.

"What? You decided to join us?" Pepin raised his voice, utterly confused at Kirev’s answer and throwing away any pretence of confidence.

"Yes, it seems that Juggernauts take priority over petty, devolved scum like yourself, so I personally requested the Council to join you, or should I say, take over your position of command." Pepin's jaw dropped as he comprehended the now-chuckling Kirev. "Therefore, General Franciscus, you are to be demoted to the rank of Captain, and the Council has officially requested that I, General Kirev Firiskiy, will take charge of the Eclipse Expedition." Kirev continued, clearly satisfied from instantly demoting Pepin to a diminutive rank.

“You are removing me from my command post? What is your reason? You can not simply… evict me simply because you the Council love you!” The infuriated Pepin turned red with rage as he began ranting at the Juggernaut, confusion underlying his voice.

Kirev prepared to abase Pepin “You just answered your own question captain. Now leave…”

"How can you do this? This is outrageous! This is unfair! How can you simply take a way a hard-earned position for no reason other than corruption..." Pepin trailed off bloviating as he realised the futility of his words. Kirev no longer cared for anything that Pepin would argue - not any longer.

"Take a seat Franciscus." Kirev ordered sternly, relishing his new position. Grudgingly, Pepin moved backwards to sit on a stool, his eyes fixated on Kirev.

"We're you not intended to simply replace Captain Rivinle?" Tangeldis piped up, possibly disappointed that she was not the selected replacement for her former general.

Amused by Tangeldis' implicit opportunism, Kirev returned tersely "No. I am your general now." Then, sensing further discontent in her eyes, he stated "In fact, your post as lieutenant general will be reduced to that of a commander. Uialok will be replacing you instead." He nodded in the direction of the female Juggernaut adjacent to him, who also had her helmet off, and was sneering at Tangeldis with contempt.

Unwilling to incur the wrath of a Juggernaut, Tangeldis remained silent and saluted, but she could feel her own blood boiling within. No one could simply demote her for no reason.

Concerned by the sudden shift in leading positions, Rethdurk and Tillecthel glanced at each other with anxious expressions, while Katos’ exposure of more information on those Juggernauts was simply aggravating Rethdurk further.

*** “You're telling me that the entire capital has been butchered by the Chaos army? How is this expedition going to defeat an opponent that just crushed the entire Rovalian military?” Vince was visibly concerned about their precarious position.


“I have conferred with General Pepin and he has decided that our new objective is to recover as many survivors as possible and investigate this Chaos presence, but only to a small extent, since engaging them in open combat would practically be suicide.” Parean explained her solution.

Nircurus entered their discussion, contributing his pragmatic view “We must ensure that we suffer minimal casualties if we are to have any sense of success, since our initial objective is now unobtainable. If any Rovalian enclaves remain in the West, this small expedition simply lacks the resources to attempt to liberate them. If Chaos maintains its current rate of conquest, all of Rovaltinny will be in their grasp w ithin approximately two weeks. We need to sweep through all of Rovaltinny and simply hope that they do not return to an area they have already razed and plundered of resources.”

Demoralised by the stream of information, Vince remained silent and nodded solemnly. “I guess we failed then.” Without another word, he waved a brief farewell to Parean and Nircurus, before plodding in a crestfallen fashion.

“Almost all of them are dead?” The now-healed Samson enjoined all the fragments of information he had heard as he ambled up to Vince.

“Yes, only a few Rovalians remained. This must have been an act of genocide or anything else that meant their extermination.” The latter divulged slowly, curling his lips inwards after he had done so in a form of grimace.

“Ah, I see. Hopefully, we can find a few more survivors; perhaps we may save enough to reseed the Rovalian race?” Samson attempted to console both himself and Vince, but he knew that the likelihood of that was minimal.

Resuming his position of command, Vince initiated the orders to march his squadron out to Roval. Edlothang and Delphius emerged from their respective tents and rallied the other soldiers who responded to Vince’s signalling. “Time to rescue a dying race…”

***

Traversing the same war-torn patch of bloodied road, the squadrons of Vince, Quargerin, Nircurus and Parean trudged through the mud, reflecting on the eerie lack of complete bodies that should have been a common feature on a battlefield, especially one of this size.

"A large battlefield with no corpses - this is just madness!" Delphius blurted out, compressing a small lump of flesh with his boots, which immediately oozed out a foul smelling liquid which hurried his departure.

"Maybe they decided to bury all the corpses alike?" Edlothang provided a possible theory with her usual level of optimism. "That eould be a great display of respect and honour."

"Edlothang, from our recent observations, Chaos appears to be anything but respectful to the Rovalians and honourable in their demeanour. So far, we have seen at least two major settlements exterminated by Chaos and the population missing. At best, they have been deported to another location which we can easily liberate. At worst, all of them have slaughtered, with a limited number utilised in slave labour in appalling conditions which will kill them rather quickly." Nircurus rapidly disproved Edlothang's theory, grimacing as he did so.

"Blebfennas had a population of around 2,000 in 57 CSE, or 67 ASE. Only yesterday, we were in Blebfennas, and there were no signs of Rovalian life there, not even freshly created graves. As a matter of fact, most of their newer graves were completeky upturned and empty. Chaos must have a purpose for those Rovalians, whether dead or alive.